SC Rewind: Barrie Recovers From Tornado

SC Rewind: Barrie Raceway at the tornado of 1985
Published: September 30, 2023 11:31 am EDT

In this week's edition of Rewind Robert Smith recalls a huge tragedy that severely damaged a major Canadian racetrack which necessitated a virtual rebuild.  His story recalls some of the details of the horrific tornado in 1985 that levelled portions of the original Barrie Raceway.  It also recalls the herculean task of rebuilding and reopening the track in a very short time. 

When Barrie Raceway opened the doors for its inaugural race card nearly 50 years ago it was immediately challenged by Mother Nature or perhaps the oft blamed weatherman.  Take your choice,  but on the evening of December 19, 1973 a major snowstorm buffeted the new track but it did not stop it from a successful opening.  Track personnel and the horse folks were equal to the task,  at least this time.   A few years ago I dedicated a Rewind column to recall that evening and have retrieved the following passage from that story. 

"Built for winter weather, the kind that so often occurs in this area, the new facility was immediately put to the supreme test. Despite a driving snowstorm, a remarkable crowd of 2,045 hardy souls showed up for opening night. Fans filled the new track to capacity, eager to see the area's newest form of entertainment. By 8:15,  the start of the second race, track officials ordered the gates closed because the parking areas were all filled."

What happened some 12 years later was unthinkable and the outcome disastrous.  On May 31, 1985 an EF-4 tornado hit Barrie.  It was one of the strongest of many occurring that day, taking eight lives, including four children. Six hundred homes and more than 50 businesses were destroyed in the city. The tornadoes caused what would now be about $1 billion in damage. Extensive damage and deaths were also reported in the Tottenham and Grand Valley areas. Altogether, more than 40 tornadoes touched down that day in Ontario, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York state.

The weather event was described as the worst natural disaster since the "visit" of Hurricane Hazel in 1954.  It was a day to be remembered but sadly for all the wrong reasons.  Unfortunately in the path of the devastating event was Barrie Raceway.  An excerpt from historical records compiled following the tornado mentioned specifically the damage incurred by the Raceway.  

damaged Barrie Raceway grandstand
The above photo shows a heavily damaged portion of Barrie Raceway following the 1985 tornado 

"The grandstand was heavily damaged and several barns nearby were destroyed. A man was killed after he was sucked out of his parked car in an adjacent lot.  Several vehicles traveling on Highway 400 were tossed hundreds of metres into the ditch, the drivers escaping with only minor injuries. Highway guard rails were found wrapped around telephone poles nearby. Many cars were also found with puncture holes in their frames, owing to the flying debris. As it crossed the highway, it moved into the Allandale subdivision."  

In the aftermath of the storm everyone impacted by the natural disaster immediately began to rally together to "right the ship" and put the pieces back together.  Fortunately no horses on the grounds were killed or even seriously injured. Due to the severity of the damage to the stables the remaining horses were moved to several locations. Some went to nearby farms while others were relocated to Sudbury Downs. The Ontario Jockey Club offered stabling at Mohawk as well.  Barrie Raceway management immediately announced that racing would be cancelled for the remainder of the 1985 season and perhaps beyond. 

Prior to the arrival of the tornado the Barrie track had been experiencing a resurgence in business. The daily handle was around $100,000 after 31 racing dates which was about a 9.5% increase over 1984's figures.  Things were going well but in the proverbial twinkling of an eye, that all changed.  

Contrary to initial assessments the track management under the direction of William Rowe soon began the massive task of restoring the track to its former state.  Mr. Rowe and his hard working staff began the almost impossible rebuild and completed the job in near record time.  Some unbelievable happenings had taken place during the short lived storm.  Huge air conditioning units that would normally require sizable machinery to move were dislodged and sent flying for a very long distance; some were never found.  

There were stories of sulkies and jog carts that were picked up and hurled literally miles away and never recovered.  One tale, whether completely true or not read as follows:

"And then there was the Barrie Raceway standardbred racehorse who was sucked from his stall at the track and softly deposited hundreds of metres away on Essa Rd., safe, but rather shaken up. He was renamed the Twister Resistor."

Out of the ruins of Barrie Raceway came a spirit and determination resulting in an inspired rebuilding program.  A little over four months after the disaster all necessary repairs and renovations were completed and the track marked the occasion with re-opening celebrations. 

Welcome back to Barrie Raceway

On the evening of October 16th the Raceway reopened with virtually all repairs completed.  The damage was so widespread that almost every facet of the premises had to be rebuilt or repaired with the price tag set at about $2 million.  That even included the racetrack itself which had to be resurfaced as a substantial layer of limestone had been removed by the force of the storm.  Rebuilt was the grandstand, dining room, barns, and infield tote boards.  

A number of dignitaries were on hand for the reopening ceremonies including Hon. Frank Miller and Barrie Mayor Ross Archer. A new general manager Ted Brent was in place succeeding Earl Rowe Jr. who resigned that position following his recent election as a member of Provincial Parliament.  It was a time to celebrate the tremendous effort that had taken place much quicker than anyone had anticipated. 

John Hayes Sr. with a plaque for Barrie Raceway
Courtesy of TROT Magazine

On the night of the reopening,  a crowd of just under 1,000 people were on hand to welcome racing back at the Barrie track.  The number was somewhat lower than anticipated as the seventh game of the American League Baseball championship series was also taking place.  The 10-race card was carried out without a hitch.  About the only thing missing was the new tote board which was still not on the premises but was expected within a couple of weeks. 

Reopening of Barrie Raceway

Observers at the opening of "The New Barrie Raceway" noted that perhaps fittingly the first race winner was a horse that just wouldn't stop trying.  In 23 previous starts M B Crendon had exactly no wins, no seconds and two thirds to his credit.  But on this night,  former maritimer Scott Mills steered M B Crendon home on top.  This very much typified the attitude of everyone who worked so hard to get Barrie Raceway back on its feet. 

On the reopening program 10 diferent drivers made visits to the winner's circle.  Following Mr. Mills was James Lockhart, Larry Hughes, Ray Cunningham, Charlie Lawson, Lloyd Spinks, Steve Goodale, Donna Degrow and Maurice Brooks.  The featured Invitational Pace for $3,000 was won by Nealies Snap in 2:03.2 for owner Harold Smalley of nearby Mount Albert.  He was driven by George Wain, a fellow who just recently passed away.  

Reopening of Barrie Raceway
A view of the brand new Barrie Raceway showing the grandstand just prior to its grand opening in late 1973. A couple of unidentified horsemen try out the new half-mile track

Closing Note: Barrie Raceway remained an active racing centre as part of the Ontario harness scene until 2001 when it closed.  The property remains unused and the outline of the track is still visible but none of the buildings remain.  Several proposals over the years have yet to materialize for residential development but there are predictions that one day it will happen.  

Quote For The Week: "Luck doesn't always have an explanation, it just happens." 

Who Is It? 

Who Is It photo question

Can you identify the two people in this Barrie photo? Let us know who you think they are. 

Who Else Is It?

Who Else Is It photo question

Can you correctly identify this fellow who was part of the Barrie Raceway scene many years ago? 



This week's pictures were solved with ease and the correct answers are shown below: 
Who is it? is driver Brad Rae receiving an award from Jane (Rowe) Hutchins at Barrie. 
 Who Else is it? That was Lloyd Spinks and thank you Lloyd for ringing in. Glad to know the story brought back good memories for John

I do miss that old track. One of our horses Barrlen Express won 10 races in a row under driver/trainer Dave Green before his unexpected death. It was a great winter track and I still remember being taken out of school just to go to the races.

Who is it: ? ?
Who Else is it: None other than Lloyd Spinks.

Who is it... Brad Rae, Jane Holmes
Who else is it... Lloyd Spinks