50 Years of Quarter Horse Racing at Ajax Downs

Posted by Jennifer Morrison on 05/06/2019

AJAX, ONT—MAY 2, 2019—In 1969 Alex Picov and his family opened the gates on their 65 acre family farm to friends and the community creating the Picov Downs "J" Track.

Live Quarter Horse racing became a community staple. For 50 years several hundred spectators have turned out every race day in the sun and amidst the excitement of live Quarter horse racing. 

And 50 years later the betting windows are still alive with activity and anticipation. Horses, jockeys, owners, trainers, and patrons all watching to see who will take home the purse money. 

What started as backyard horse racing matches among friends in nothing more then t-shirts and cowboy boots has grown into one of the most popular sporting events in Ontario. 

 

Picov Downs Staring Gates.ca. 1973

Picov Downs, now Ajax Downs, has welcomed horses and horsepeople from Canada and the USA to compete in these short, but exciting dashes down the dirt track. Alex Picov was one of the original believers in the future of Quarter Horse racing in Ontario. He along with youngest son, Norm, opened Picov Downs in response to the local demand and to support for Live Quarter Horse racing. 

On May 5, 2019 a more lucrative, professional and faster sport of Quarter Horse racing gets underway at its current home, the pristine, state of the art Ajax Downs just seconds from its original home. 

Fan friendly Ajax Downs gets you up close and personal with our beautiful Quarter Horses and the great horsepeople who care for them. 

Trackside picnic tables and the popular and always busy barbecue sit adjacent to the Paddock area and a five-eighths of a mile oval track with one of the best dirt surfaces in the country. 

 

Racing at Picov Downs.  
ca. 1972

Each summer Sunday afternoons are filled with many colourful events with giveaways and a chance to meet the participants and learn about the sport of Quarter Horse racing. Indeed, special days such as Mother's Day, & Father's Day Canada Day, Craft Brewery Day and Family Day are just a few of the events that pack the Ajax stands and patio. 

"We have come a long way, and we're just getting better and better," said Ralph Pearson, one of the first presidents of the Quarter Racing Owners of Ontario, Inc. "This is going to be our best year yet, our 50th anniversary!" It was 1969 when the first organized races were held at Picov Downs, moving to the little dirt strip built on land donated by the horse-loving Alex Picov and his family. 

 

Lil Go Twist, a grand-daughter of Go Man Go winning at Picov Downs.. ca. 1971

"At first were having races at Al Greco's Circle M Ranch in Kleinburg, essentially in his backyard,' said Pearson. "We raced our barrel horses, ponies, just to see who had the faster horse." 

Once they had their own track at Picov Downs, horsemen such as Gerry Armstrong among others, built fences, a judge's tower complete with a jockey's room. In 1971 it became a recognized track with the American Quarter Horse Association and Ontario racing regulators granted the track several pari-mutuel wagering days. 

Bob Woodward, Picov's leading rider in 1971, chuckles when he remembers the early days of Quarter Horse racing at Picov Downs. 

"Sometimes you didn't really know what you were climbing aboard,' said Woodward. "Some of them were more like pony horses than racehorses." 

 

Ralph Pearson and Jockey Bob Woodward at Picov Downs. ca. 1973

Woodward said the sharp 'J' turn often had a mud puddle that riders and horses had to avoid while pulling up. 

Ken Richards, who has been involved in horse racing for more than 50 years remembers one instance when a visiting jockey had trouble after a race. 

"Our horses at Picov were trained to turn right after the race but during a stakes race one year a competing American horse with a jockey turned left and went through the track fence. The jockey ended up with two broken wrists." 

And the starting gate they used? Well let's say it was a far cry from the fancy gates they use today. 

"It had runners on it like a sleigh, not wheels," laughed Pearson. "We could only drag it one way and that was down the track to the finish line, so we ran the longer races first." 

 

Spectators urge horses from the inside rail at Picov Downs.. ca. 1973

In the early years, horsepeople raced essentially for their own money they put up to enter in a race. But in the mid 1980s, Norm Picov took over his family businesses, Picov Cattle Company and its iconic Equestrian Supply Store, and began to add purse money himself for each race. 

"Picov Downs was a cool little track," said Bob Broadstock, president of the QROOI. "It was almost like a tailgating party each Sunday afternoon. It was more like a club back then, friends racing their horses against friends and then getting together after the races." 

Broadstock, who trains and races horses with wife Marie, came up through the ranks after working for Joe and Christine Tavares, the long time leading trainer and owner at Picov/Ajax Downs. 

When the explosion of slot machines in the early 2000s brought the flashy machines to a building adjacent to Picov Downs, the Quarter Horse industry led by Norm Picov went to work on getting a new racetrack. 

His dream was realized in 2009 when Ajax Downs opened complete with pristine stabling for horses to ship in on race day, a beautiful racebook and simulcast area and a sparkling restaurant overlooking the track. 

"It was like a fuzzy dream; very surreal," said Broadstock. "We went from a hill-billy type track to this amazing, state-of-the-art place." 

As part of the slots-at-racetracks partnership program, Ajax Downs racing grew quickly. Licensed horsepeople jumped from 145 in 2005 to over 1000 by 2012, the horse population increased from just over 100 to more than 600. Overall wagering on Quarter Horse racing exploded, reaching $3 million, up from $300,000 in 2009. 

But just as quickly, the industry, including Thoroughbred and Standardbreds, lost a lot of participants when the SARP was cancelled in 2014. The good news is, the current provincial government has worked with racing to help it return to health. 

The list of some of the bigger names of stables in the history of Ajax Downs includes Bill Cruwys, Mel Romaine and Don Reid to many who still race horses today: Carol and Wayne Proctor, Les Baker, Barry Wood, the Tavares' and Greg and Sue Watson. 

The Picov family and their vision were recognized for the incredible growth of the sport in Canada when Norm was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2017. 

You want fast horses? How about great ones from the past such as Gina Gay, who won Quarter Horses races at Picov, Woodbine and Greenwood, and Champions such as Go Smashing Baby, Rockish and One Kool Wave. 

It is so easy to fall in love with these equine heroes (and get to know each one's barn name!). 

Expected to race again in 2019 is Country Boy 123 ('CB'), Horse of the Year for the last three seasons who was unbeaten at Ajax Downs last year. 

Today, the Quarter Horse business is back on the rise thanks to the QROOI board of directors and its work with the provincial government, Ajax Downs' General Manager Emilio Trotta and his creative and innovative team and of course, the brazenly fast athletes. 

Come out to one of the most exciting and fun days you can have this summer at Ajax Downs and help it celebrate 50 years of Quarter Horse Racing. 

 

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AJAX DOWNS STATS 
When - Sundays May 5 through Sept. 1; Post time 12:55
also Monday July 1. 
Mondays September 9 through Oct. 21

Notable event days:
May 12: Mother's Day; June 2: Fan Appreciation Day
June 16: Father's Day; July 1: Canada Day
July 14: 50th anniversary celebration
Aug. 18: Family Dun day
Oct 14: Pumpkin Day

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