The sport was extremely popular in the 1920s, but the paper wasn’t a fan of placing bets on horses
Horse racing has been around Vancouver since the pioneer days.
On Oct. 29, 1888, a race between steeds like Coquitlam Jim, Slow Dick and Bryan O’Lynn attracted so many local politicians that a city council meeting was cancelled for lack of a quorum.
In 1889 and 1890, the masses thronged the sidewalks along Howe Street to watch Dominion Day horse races downtown. Racing fans and owners then began to agitate for a civic racecourse, and on Sept. 15, 1892, one opened at Hastings Park.
It’s still in operation 127 years later.
But horse racing’s popularity also brought controversy, because people gambled on the outcomes.
By Jan. 15, 1922, the moralists at The Vancouver Sun had had enough. In a front-page editorial, the paper attacked the “Menace of Horse-Racing.”
“Those knights of the itching palm who have specialized in horse-racing as the method whereby the fool and his money can be most easily parted, are preparing for their seasonal invasion of Vancouver this coming summer, with intent to gather up another million dollars or more of easy money,” said the unsigned missive.
“Sport and recreation are just as necessary to a well-rounded life as food and fresh air, but sport commercialized loses the up-building effect, and sport tied up to a gambling orgy becomes a corroding vice striking infection into the vitals of the community.
“Open racetracks bring to the city a horde of unmoral men and immoral women — intent on getting money without work — and not caring to what extent they contaminate the crowds who are attracted to the races.”
The following day, The Sun received support from the Rev. J.S. Henderson, who gave an address on “Does Gambling Pay?” at the Colonial Theatre.
“(Horse racing) is spoiling our legitimate sport,” he said. “Horses were made to run, they love to run, there’s no harm in that. Every true sportsman loves good clean sport, and to see a contest for the love of the sport and for the joy and satisfaction of indulging in it.”
But betting on the ponies was something else. To Rev. Henderson, gambling “meant an unsettled mind and led to moral and financial ruin.”
Henderson said only three American states allowed pari-mutual betting on horses, but it was legal in Canada. This led gamblers to Toronto, Windsor, Victoria and Vancouver racetracks. Henderson claimed gamblers had bet $6 million to $7 million through Canadian “pari-mutual machines” in 1921.
The reverend denounced the city for renting the racetrack for only $10,000, a “paltry sum” considering how much money was being taken in.
“I commend The Vancouver Sun when it manifests the courage to strike at this evil through a front-page editorial,” he said. “There is a big fight on.”
On Jan. 24, 1922, Vancouver council looked at terminating the racing association’s lease at Hastings Park.
Alderman T.H. Tracy said he had been to the racetrack the previous summer, “and it was the toughest-looking crowd I ever saw. Young girls were taking an absorbing interest in the betting.”
Hastings Park was then run by the Vancouver Exhibition Association, which sublet the racecourse to the racing association. The proposal before council would have seen control of the park handed to the Vancouver park board, and board chair W.C. Shelly wasn’t a fan of horse racing.
“If I have anything to do with leasing the park, there will be no racing,” Shelly said. “I am right with The Vancouver Sun in its fight against the gambling evil.”
The issue percolated through 1922, but eventually died out. The Exhibition Association retained control of Hastings Park, and the racing association continued to run the track.
Even if racing had been forced out of Vancouver, race fans had the option of going to Richmond, where at various times there were race tracks at Minoru, Brighouse and Lansdowne parks. Horse racing became so big in the Lower Mainland, The Sun ran race predictions by “Railbird” on the front page from the 1930s to the 1960s.