If you love horses, then Toronto has lots to offer. Whether it is enjoying a day out at the races or riding horseback on an adventure trail, then there will be something for you.
Starting with horse racing, if you want to watch it live or gamble, then the place to go is Woodbine. It is the pre-eminent track in Canada and one of the most popular in North America. It also has an international appeal due the Grade 1 races staged at the track throughout the year.
The current Woodbine track, which opened in 1956, is not the original Woodbine course. The first Woodbine track in Toronto was opened in 1874 at the foot of Woodbine Avenue and Lake Ontario. However, following the creation of the present Woodbine, the original version subsequently changed its name to the Greenwood Raceway before closing down in 1994.
Around that time, the ‘new’ Woodbine underwent a major redevelopment before staging the Breeders’ Cup in 1996. There are three different courses at the Woodbine track. There is the main polytrack course which is oval-shaped and one mile in distance. The EP Taylor Turf course runs around the outside of the track and is a mile-and-a-half in length. Both of these courses are for thoroughbreds. Then, there is the track for standardbred horses which is for harness racing. Woodbine’s sister track – Mohawk Raceway – is more renowned for its harness racing and is located in Campbellville.
The track is located just 2km from Pearson International Airport and there are several ways to reach Woodbine, which is on Rexdale Boulevard, if you fancy a trip to the races.
If you are driving from downtown Toronto, then you need to take the Travel Gardener Expressway West to 427 North. You go past Highways 27/401 before exiting east at Derry Road and Rexdale Boulevard.
Coming from the East, you need to head on the 401 Westbound to 409/427 North, get on the 427 North and then exit at Derry Road and Rexdale Boulevard.
Driving in from the West, you should travel on the 401 Eastbound, transfer on to the collectors at Dixon Road to gain access to Highway 427 North. It is then the same exit for Woodbine as the other routes.
It is also worth noting that general parking at the track is free, although you can pay for valet parking if you wish. There are 14,700 parking spaces, so you will probably find a spot to park.
There are a couple of options for you to consider if you are taking public transit. There is the 37A Islington to Woodbine and Humberwood via Rexdale Boulevard. The track also offers a pick up and drop off service, so this will take you right near to the main entrance of Woodbine from Islington subway station.
You can also catch the 191 Hwy 27 Rocket. There is then a bus which travels to and from Kipling Subway Station, with a pick up and drop off at Hwy 27 and Queens Plate Drive. You then have a five to 10 minute walk to the track from there.
If you wanted to get the bus to the track, then you can jump on at Westwood Mall and travel to Woodbine that way.
Once you’re there
When you do arrive at the track, then it is free admission. After you have walked through the gates, the Woodbine world is your oyster.
It is a spacious venue and there are 12,000 seats around the course, so on most days you will be able to get a seat. The bigger meetings may feel a bit more cramped, but they only heighten the atmosphere and buzz of anticipation at the course.
In addition to being able to bet on the day’s horse racing, you can also play the slot machines at the track and there is plenty of assistance at the course to save you getting lost.
If you are not a die-hard horse racing fan, but enjoy a fun experience, then probably the best thing to do is have something to eat while you are at the track. In the Favourites Dining Room, you can eat, have a bet and have a fantastic view of the racing as well, so it combines everything that you would want from a day at the races. It is generally recommended that you make a reservation for Favourites Dining Room as it is popular on race days. There is no specific dress code for the dining room and so it provides a laid-back atmosphere. But at the same time don’t let that stop you getting dressed up for the day. There is a buffet in the dining room and it is $35 for lunch and $39 for dinner. What makes it more appealing, though, from a family point of view is that it is half price for children aged 12 and under, while kids aged four and under are free.
If you just fancy a drink while you are watching the racing, then you have also got the Champions Bar and Patio, and the Finish Line Bar.
Obviously if you are going to Woodbine, then watching the horse racing itself is likely to be your prime reason, so you will need to know what will be on offer.
From the end of April through to the end of November, there is racing during the day every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with the first race post time scheduled to be 1pm. There is also Wednesday evening racing, with a post time of 6.45pm, which starts at the end of May. There are also Special Holiday meetings during the course of the year as well.
Woodbine stages four Grade 1 races during the year – the Woodbine Mile, the Northern Dancer Turf Stakes, the EP Taylor Stakes and the Canadian International. This year, the Woodbine Mile and the Northern Dancer will be held on Sunday, September 13, while the EP Taylor and the Canadian International are on Sunday, October 18.
As all of these races are run on the turf track, rather than the polytrack, they usually attract runners from Europe. This is due to a combination of the prestige of the race and the fact that European horses are generally more suited to turf than the majority of their North American counterparts, and so it is a chance for their trainers and owners to win some big prize money and get black type for their horses to boost their value at stud.
You only have to look through the list of winners of these four races to see the way they have been targeted by trainers from Britain, Ireland and France. For instance, four of the last five winners of the Northern Dancer Turf have been trained in Britain.
Last year, former Liverpool and Manchester United soccer player Michael Owen tried to win the Canadian International with his horse Brown Panther. The horse was fancied to win the Grade 1 after previously winning the Irish St Leger, but he bolted from the starting gate and had to be scratched. It may have been a wasted journey for Owen and Brown Panther, but the race was still won by a British horse as Hillstar won for Sir Michael Stoute. He also trained Singspiel to win the Canadian International in 1996. Singspiel returned to Woodbine for the Breeders’ Cup Turf just a few weeks later and finished second. Still, it wasn’t that bad a result for Stoute as he also trained the winner Pilsudski.
The Grade 1 races at Woodbine do provide the winner with an automatic entry into the Breeders’ Cup, and the Woodbine Mile has been a key guide in recent years. Wise Dan won the Woodbine Mile in both 2012 and 2013 before going on to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile. He is fancied for the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Keeneland. But the eight-year-old is still uncertain to race again as he continues his recovery from a fractured ankle, which forced him to miss last year’s Breeders’ Cup.
If you prefer to be a bit more active than sitting, or even standing, to watch the horse racing, then Toronto has plenty of options for you to go horse riding. Whether you are an absolute beginner or have years of experience in the saddle behind you, then you will be able to find somewhere to cater for your needs and ability.
Most places will broadly offer the same range of services when it comes to lessons, but here are a few of the riding opportunities you may want to explore.
Situated to the north of Toronto in Brampton, the Claireville Ranch is based in the Claireville Conservation area. There is the chance to undertake lessons to suit a range of riding experience, and there are also trail rides and pony rides available. You can also board your own horse at the stables and there is a riders’ club for you to join.
If you fancy going slightly further afield, then HorsePlay Niagara offers a wide variety of rides whether you are part of a family, a large group, a couple or just going it alone. Based in Wainfleet, Ontario, it’s a 90-minute drive from Toronto, but there is the chance to ride numerous different trails, from a family trail through to an adventure beach ride.
For a comprehensive guide to learning how to not only ride a horse, but also to look after one, then Sunnybrook Stables, set in Sunnybrook Park, has plenty to offer. They provide lessons in English riding instruction for jumping and dressage, and you can sign up for an introductory course which is based around an eight-week lesson plan. You will be taught how to tack up, walk, trot and canter a horse, and there are also lessons on stable management. Lessons last for 50 minutes and it is $150 for a private lesson. Group lessons are also available, but you must pass an assessment to demonstrate your riding ability before you can take part in these. For the more proficient rider, there is also the opportunity to participate in competitions.
Just 30 minutes away from downtown Toronto in Oakville, The Ranch offers some excellent trail rides. For $42, you can go on a one hour guided trail ride at walking to jogging pace on a horse, so it can suit the rookie rider as well. Even those who have never been horse riding before will be able to manage at that pace, providing you are wearing suitable equipment. You don’t need to have the full riding gear, but wearing the right footwear, for instance, will make a big difference to your ability to ride the horse. The Ranch is open all year round and, from May through to October, it is open seven days a week.
The Riding Academy
Based at The Horse Palace on Nova Scotia Avenue, The Riding Academy boasts experienced and professional instructors, as well as a selection of school horses which will be suitable for whatever riding ability you have, or don’t have. Having gone horse riding in the lava fields outside Reykjavik in Iceland on a strong-willed horse which largely ignored my attempts to steer and went at its own pace, it is reassuring to know you will be sitting on well-schooled horses. Introductory courses are available for would-be riders aged eight and above, and there are also weekly, group, semi-private and private lessons available. There are also riding camps and therapeutic riding opportunities. The Horse Palace also recently held the annual Toronto Horse Day, which is co-ordinated by the Ontario Equestrian Federation. The free one-day event gives you a chance to learn about horses and watch them being put through their paces among a host of other things.
Located an hour to the west of Toronto in Georgetown, the Wildwood Ranch has options to cater for however long you want your riding experience to be. You can pay $20 for just 15 minutes or $185 for the full day which also includes lunch. The venue also caters for school groups and birthday parties in addition to the standard options you will find at the other riding centers.