Canadians do not curse their cruel winter; they choose instead to celebrate it with festivals like Winterlude in Ottawa, when the snowy capital becomes a gallery of ice sculptures and a symphony of clinking glasses and steel blades scraping on ice. The air is redolent of bean soup and all cheeks are rosy. Best of all, there is now a glorious return to simpler yesterdays: harness racing on the frozen Rideau Canal.
Last February, when harness horses raced for a quarter of a mile over the ice on Ottawa's Rideau Canal in the climactic event of the city's Winterlude celebration, the snow swirled, the temperature dropped below zero, the band played The Sound of Music, and it was 1900 all over again. It felt good.
The justification for the races is having fun—there is no organized betting, for example. But fun, of course, is reason enough.
Until the 1920s, ice racing was hugely popular in Canada, but except for Winterlude, it survives only on a small scale in the Maritime provinces. Time was when the fastest way to travel from Toronto to Montreal was by sleigh over frozen water—376 miles in 36 hours with 24 changes of horses. In those days, men would challenge one another to races on the Rideau on the way home from church—racing on the way to church was considered unseemly—the wagering often being for a homely stake like a barrel of salt pork or some squared timber.
December 24, 1979
Today the prizes run to cash awards of $250 or maybe a horse blanket. "The main thing about ice racing is that you haven't got a lot to lose because there's not a lot to gain," says a driver from Prince Edward Island, where the sport hangs on. "Still, a horse that's absolutely no good on turns can find his salvation on ice." A horse also can find itself on its back, but most don't, the quarter-inch spikes welded to their shoes serving to keep them upright most of the time. But there are advantages to taking a spill on ice, the driver says, because "when you go down on clay, you stop a lot quicker." Which can be a lot more jarring. Calgary's Ed Tracey, who won last year's competition, insists, "Ice isn't much worse than mud. I've raced in mud that was just as slippery."
Last winter, when racing was brought back to the Rideau after a hiatus of more than 50 years, several of the sport's stars, including Canadian-born biggies John Chapman and Herve Filion, showed up to drive horses of no discernible ability in races with atrociously uneven starts—there was no starting gate, which meant the gentlemen were on their honor—and no firm rules. Just like the old days.
Filion, harness racing's alltime leading money-winner (28.7 million dollars), didn't win one of the day's nine races, but he didn't seem to mind. "With a good horse, I do great," he said. "With a bad horse, I do terrible." For his part, a mystified Chapman walked onto the canal, stared blankly at the scene, and then asked a race official, "Excuse me, but where is the track?" Answered the official, "Excuse me, but you're standing in the middle of it."
The glory of racing on the Rideau is that things like where the track is and who wins and loses matter not. What's important is the warm feeling. Winterlude looks as if it's right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Dads skate the canal with kids on their shoulders; moms pull tots in wagon sleds; hands are warmed by outdoor fires; horse-drawn turn-of-the-century sleighs and cutters transport dignitaries, covered by buffalo lap robes, hither and yon.
The horses will come to Winterlude again on Feb. 17, and the very idea makes Roland Armitage glow. "This used to be fun," says the president of the Canadian Trotting Association. "And why shouldn't it still be?" It is, Roland, it is.