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A brief history of Dufferin Park race track

by M Monastyrskyj, CELOS researcher

Dufferin Mall, on the west side of Dufferin St. across the street from Dufferin Grove park, sits on land that until 1955 was occupied by a half-mile horse race track officially called Dufferin Park, but unofficially nicknamed Little Saratoga and Sufferin Park.

The property that would become the track was once owned by the Denison family and was already being used for private racing in the 1800s. In 1905, a group of investors including a well known gambling man by the name of Abe Orpen began to rent the property for public meets.

In 1909 the Globe (the forerunner of today's Globe and Mail) started a campaign to shut down Dufferin arguing the races were being run under a provincial charter that was no longer valid. After holding hearings, Ontario's attorney general ruled the charter had expired. Abe Orpen appealed to Wilfred Laurier's government in Ottawa, which granted him a federal charter allowing him to operate four race tracks including the one at Dufferin Park. The controversy over the charter was a part of a larger campaign by churches and newspapers against race-track gambling in Canada.

Abe Orpen owned the track until his death in 1937. Towards the end of his life, he had acquired a measure of respectability, but in his early days he was a controversial figure because of his gambling businesses. An obituary that appeared in the Globe and Mail described Orpen in his younger days as “the lawbreaker who ran the poolroom in old Toronto Junction, and came within an inch of going to jail as the proprietor of a gambling club on Wellington Street.”

After Orpen died, the race track was taken over by his son Fred, who became known for among other things banging out on his piano a badly played rendition of God Save the Queen at the start of each racing day. In 1955 Fred Orpen closed Dufferin Park and sold it. The new owners tore down the track and built a strip mall known as Dufferin Plaza. In 1972, the stores in the plaza were put under a roof and the shopping centre was rechristened the Dufferin Mall.

During its fifty years of existence, Dufferin Park was more than a race track. It also served as a stadium for events like circuses and wild west shows. When the circus came to Dufferin, the animals and performers would march along Bloor and Brock in a parade from the old TTC barns on Lansdowne down to the track on Dufferin. In the June 30, 1911 edition of the Globe there is a display ad for the Young Buffalo wild west show at Dufferin Park. Among the featured performers is Annie Oakley, “peerless rifle and wing shot of the world.” In addition to “Indians, Cowboys and Girls” the ad promised a “big street parade.”

(Click here to view pictures of the track found on the Toronto archives website.)

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