WEST BRANCH - Ron Goodall leans back in a chair at his West Branch River John home and searches back through the years.
"The first time I can remember seeing race horses was in '36," says Goodall, who didn't get into owning horses (they're on P.E.I.) until 1990, he says.
West Branch (near River John) is rural now, but there was a time when it was a bustling little area. "This place used to have grist mills, saw mills, a hotel," Goodall says. "There was lumbering and farming here."
Until horse tracks were constructed most horse racing in Pictou County took place on public highways and frozen waterways in winter. "Ice racing used to be very big here," says John Ashton, who is researching sport history in this area for the Pictou County Sports Heritage Hall of Fame.
Not far from his house, sits an old barn, weathered by time but still looking sturdy; back in the first half of the 20th century, horsemen would drive their horses from around the county (or in some cases, load them on trains), let their animals rest for a night in the barn before racing them the next day (the barn still has a horse-themed weather vein perched on its roof).
This was back when there were weekend festivals or fairs in far-flung rural areas, and horse racing was a big draw at these events. And, before technological advances led to cameras being used for photo finishes, judges would sit try to determine in a close race just which horse had his nose across the finish line first.
Disputed calls might lead to fisticuffs, Goodall says - when there was competitive pride and a few dollars on the line, some decisions were disputed far more than others. "Politics and horse racing being what they are, there might be a little fight."
Just down the road a few hundred yards from the barn, Goodall points out the land where a race track once stood. Long reclaimed by nature, there are trees and alders surrounding a rutted road that doesn't see much use these days.
He remembers harness tracks in Blue Acres and Parkdale (what is now the Scott Weeks Complex).
"I'd head to both of them to see the races," said Goodall.
In Cape John, some race days would see more than 1,000 flock to the track (sometimes up to 1,200), to take in a day at the races.
There was also a very good harness track in Pictou, located on the exhibition grounds, until sometime in the 1940s.
"There was quite a grandstand there, too," Goodall says. "A lot of these old tracks, they weren't allowed to do any betting, and that was one of the things that killed them off."
Pictou County horse racing
• The first recorded horse racing event was during Queen Victoria's coronation celebration in Pictou - on June 28, 1838. "....the horse races commenced at 9 o'clock a.m. and were held on the new road in the rear of Dr. McCulloch's (Hector Centre)
• Early Pictou County horse-racing was irregular for next 30 years.
"....we understand that for some time past horse-racing has been carried on to a considerable extent at the Albion Mines, and on Saturday last a boy named William Cullen sustained very severe injuries while racing."
Source: Eastern Chronicle, Feb. 6, 1867
• Organized ice horse racing was held in Pictou Harbour, East River at
New Glasgow and River John beginning in the 1860s and continued through to the 1930s.
• In the early twentieth century ice horse-racing events also took place at Loch Broom, Sylvester, Merigomish, Thorburn, Woodburn and Abercrombie.
• Union Driving Park (now Weeks Sports Complex) was organized and constructed in New Glasgow in the 1880s.
• Stellarton Driving Club and Westville Driving Club were organized in the 1880s.
• Horse-racing track operated at Pictou (Exhibition Grounds) 1890's
• The Pictou County Driving Club was organized in the early 1900's with various races to be held throughout the county.
• New Row Track operated in Thorburn early 1900s.
• West Branch Driving Track was constructed in 1914 and operated until the early 1920s
• Pictou Driving Club organized in the early 1920s
• In 1921 Seaview Trotting Park was constructed at Westerly, Cape John ....1500 people attended the first race on July 1st 1921
• Blue Acres Trotting Park constructed in 1940s and operated until the early 1960s.