Bettin’ On The Ponies

Oh, What a night!

I was 11 years old when dad promised I could go with him to the horse races for the first time. I had watched him leave in the late afternoon on several occasions, for an evening at the horse races in London.

Dad’s friend Vern Soper, was a standardbred horse breeder, trainer and driver. It was common for dad to take me with him to the horse barn to look at these majestic creatures. I soon grew to learn the horse and horseracing vernacular – mare, stallion, gelding, pacer, trotter, stud, sulky, bay, roan, win, place, show etc.

Vern took me on the sulky with with him a couple of times when I was small enough to sit on his lap. It was pretty exhilarating.

In fact, I was around horses quite a bit as I was growing up. I had a Shetland pony as a youngster and when I outgrew it, I got a Welsh pony – a little bigger and more athletic. For the life of me, I can’t remember either’s name.

My friend Steve Horton, had a Shetland at the same time as I did (Sparky – why can I remember that?) and we often rode together. I suspect our respective fathers were in cahoots on this venture. Both ponies were very gentle and I recall running up from behind and jumping on bareback. We were budding rodeo stars.

My Shetland pony was similar to this guy

Welsh was similar but was a “painted pony”

One day I was riding my cousin Neil’s horse and fell off on my shoulder. To this day, I can often tell when the weather is about to change, via an ache in my right shoulder. Ahhh the infallibility of a young child!!

Both my Uncle Blake Wolfe and Uncle Lyle Grant had standardbred horses, that had somewhat successful careers on the track. But my uncles were not hands on, like Vern Soper was.

Memory has failed me a little over the years, so I can’t describe Vern very well physically. I seem to remember he was about five feet ten inches tall, with wavy grey hair. He was always kind to me, taking the time to share the horses names and letting me pet them. I think he had six or seven horses in his stable.

Dad often teamed up with a couple of buddies when he went to the horse races in London, generally when Vern Soper was on the card. On one such occasion, it was with his friend Gord Brackenbury. Gord was a jovial guy, with a kind face, and a somewhat ruddy complexion. Standing about five foot eight inches, he had powerful arms, and a squat powerful body. I remember him always with a smile and a kind word.

Gord “hauled water” for a living, among other things. When our well would run dry, a call was made to Gord. He would show up in a truck with a tank on the back and fill our well with fresh water. I’m not sure that is a thing anymore.

I was so excited to be included in a “men’s night out”. For a young fella, it was a long ride to London, anticipating the riches awaiting me. I was going to be allowed to make one bet – and I was absolutely certain it was going to change my life.

Vern had a horse named Drisco Hal, scheduled to race in the fifth race of the evening. I had met the horse at home and thought he was amazing. It was a bay gelding and I was sure there was not a horse on earth that could measure up on this occasion.

Dad gave me two dollars and said he would place a bet for me. Explaining how it worked, he said I could bet on it to win, but if I bet on it to place (come in second), I would win something if it came either first OR second.

I asked him to bet on Drisco Hal to finish in second place and crossed my fingers and toes that he would not let me down.

Leading up to that fifth race, I was mesmerized by these majestic animals. As they rounded the track for the second time, the noise in the stands seemed to build to a crescendo., culminating in a mixture of elation and groans as the finish line was breached.

I don’t recall how many horses were in that fifth race, but Drisco Hall got off to a good start, by half way through the race, he was near the lead. By the three quarter pole he was leading the pack and I was jumping up and down. The horses were thundering down the final stretch neck and neck, ears back, tails out as if using it as a rudder, the hooves pounding on the track. As they crossed the finish line, I thought Drisco Hal had won. It was a “photo finish”, too close to call.

I was trembling with excitement. My life was about to change!

After an excruciating delay, the race announcer came over the speaker and said Drisco Hal had finished second – exactly where I had bet. I had won a fortune, of that I was certain!!! Dad went up to cash my ticket and came back with $11.20.

It was a fortune! I had never had that much money in my life. And then Gord spoke up.

“You know young fella, the big winner always buys dinner on the way home”!

On no. I was devastated.

I could hardly contain myself until the rest of the races were over. Did I really have to buy dinner? If not, what would I buy with all this money???

It was getting late, as we pulled out of the Western Fair parking lot. Soon we were on our way home. I was nodding off, laying prone in the back seat, dreaming of my new found wealth (no seatbelts back then) when we pulled into the parking lot of the Nordon Restaurant on the corner of Clark Road and Commissioners Road.

Oh no! Time to pay the piper. I would have to buy dinner and my dreams were going to be crushed.

Well of course Gord had been kidding me, and my faith was to be restored in humanity. What a night. I was most certainly set for life.

I saved my $11.20 until I had an opportunity to go to Canadian Tire in Tillsonburg with mom. I knew exactly what I wanted – a Mastercraft 500 hockey stick. I had dreamt of this moment ever since that night at the races. My friends would be so envious.

I bought the stick for roughly $5.00 and still had money to spend. Ahh the good old days! It had a black shaft and blade. “Mastercraft 500” written down the shaft. Almost indestructible.

I have been to the races many times over the past fifty plus years, but I’ll never forget the excitement of that first bet on Drisco Hal.

5 responses to “Bettin’ On The Ponies”

  1. Thank you Kent for another memory from our childhood. I too remember Vern, though I cannot really picture him. You will recall we lived next door to Vern for a year or two on your family’s farm. Interesting to me that the memories of Vern and his horses and barn that first come to mind are the “traumatic” ones…

    Vern once gave me a cure dalmatian puppy. The puppy was old and smart enough, first chance it got it headed back next door to the barn and it’s mother. When I went over looking for it, the mother bit me a number of times, leaving me a bit dog leary for a while. The adults decided having a puppy that close to it’s mother wasn’t going to work.

    I also remember watching the stallions being castrated. I didn’t really understand exactly what was being done (fortunately), but the way the horses instantly went crazy, I knew it was very painful, and that left a lasting impression!

    As you know we’ll, the pasture for Vern’s race horses was in the steep woods above the Otter Creek and Vienna. One day, Vern came over to get my Dad and asked him to bring his gun. One of the horses has fallen and a stick had gone through it’s abdomen. My Dad had to shoot it to put it out of pain. Though I gladly didn’t see it, visualizing that happening to one of those beautiful animals was still very unsettling for a child.

    Keep telling stories Kent!

  2. I so love this story Vern and Molly were my grandparents I am Christy Ward their daughter Mary’s girl. I spent endless days hours and years in the horse barn with my grandpa Vern and still today the housewife is my life all I learned and cherished from my childhood at the barn, driving the horses ,going to the races, cleaning stalls on Saturday and then grandpa would give me a ya horse to ride with my friend Laura Wall or the day it was our Saturday ritchual. I do miss those days. In now showing horses and judging horse shows and truly love every minute. Have worked hard to accomplish my dream little farm with horsez,dogs chicken and the country life for me lives on. Thankyou for this article I will always cherish it Kent.

  3. You may recall the name Scurry Lee..he was the Tillsonburg arena manager for several years. He also drove the starting gate at Western Fair Raceway. His wife, who was often in the ticket booth at the arena, attended the horse races regularly. When me and a couple of buddies would go to the races we would sit next to Mrs. Lee and listen intently thinking she probably had inside information. We would occasionally ask her who she liked in a particular race. In the beginning her suggestions were paying off and we thought we were on a path to financial freedom. It wasn’t long before we found that many of the horses she mentioned to us were finishing well back in the pack. We concluded that this was her way of telling us to get lost and quit bothering her.

  4. My parent Maurice and Yvonne Deketelaere grew tobacco for Vern and Molly . Yes I’m the kid with the Shetland pony” Cookie” that rode alover Vienna. That pony was given to me by Vern. He got me horse crazy.Gord Brackenberry also got the pony group going to Tillsonburg fair. I was nicknamed Tom lol
    We grew tobacco by the barn on top of the hill and later down mud run road.Have home movies of eary morning training horses of Vern . My love continues to this day and I’m proud to say I work at Ontario Veterinary College large animal Geulph. Hi to everyone Doreen Deketelaere

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