- Robbie Raskin
Woodbine – Queen’s Plate
Photos by Robbie Raskin, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 4.00
Woodbine 555 Rexdale Blvd Etobicoke, ON M9W 5L2, Canada
Year Opened: 1956
A Royally Good Time
One of the unique aspects of horse racing worldwide is that major racing nations have three important races that comprise their national ‘Triple Crowns’ of horse racing. Usually, the races are restricted to three-year-old throughbreds. In Canada, unlike in most other nations, each race of Triple Crown is run on a different surface; the Queen’s Plate on synthetic Tapeta, the Prince of Wales’ Stakes, run in Fort Erie, Ontario, on dirt, and the Breeder’s Stakes on turf. The Queen’s Plate, however, is the single most prestigious, and carries with it a massive sense of occasion as one of Toronto’s most prominent social events in the year.
Held annually at Woodbine in Toronto, the Queen’s Plate is held as part of a two-day summer festival. Usually occurring during late June or early July, this year’s running took place over the Canada Day long weekend (28-29 June, 2019). Toronto’s socialites took a pause from their usual commute north to their cottages to spend the weekend seeing and being seen, as well as enjoying the oldest continuously-run horse race in North America.
Inaugurated in 1860, the Queen’s Plate was first held at Toronto’s Carleton Race Course and moved around the province of Upper Canada (which became known as Ontario). It has flipped between being known as the Queen’s Plate and the King’s Plate, pending the current reigning monarch. Its $1 000 000 purse makes it a tremendously important race for breeders and jockeys, but it is also a massive betting occasion at the track and around the country. It is also a popular event for the royal family to attend, with Queen Elizabeth having last personally attended in 2010.
The two-day festival features dozens of individual races, culminating in the running of the Queen’s Plate itself. The first day, usually Friday, is considered the pre-party, with an air of anticipation over the racecourse, while Saturday is the big day with all its pomp and circumstance.
Woodbine itself is Canada’s premier horse racing destination and has been since it opened in 1956. It is also home to a large casino, and will soon be home to a major entertainment and residential precinct, now under construction. Open daily for much of the year (and with the casino open year round), the racecourse features a number of other notable races including the Canadian International Stakes, the Breeders’ Stakes, the Coronation Futurity, and many more. For horse racing fans or just those looking for a royally good time, a trip to Woodbine is surely in order next summer!
Food & Beverage 5
Depending on from where you choose to enjoy the race, your food options go from good to superlative. Within the grandstand, there are a number of upscale restaurants and bars as well as typical concession booths.
Starting with these, the Trackside Grill offers burgers, sausages, and chicken sandwiches from $5.25 for a basic hamburger and up. Prices are reasonable; a sausage and chips combo goes for $8.90. Various sides like onion rings, poutine, and chicken fingers are also good value. The Carvery offers roast beef, a diverse menu of salads including mango prawn and teriyaki salmon, and a surprisingly robust rotating menu of soups. Bowls of soup are $5.25 and there are a handful of options. While the hot weather of this year’s race didn’t warrant it, the beef brisket soup looked particularly appetising. Another option in this food court area is the Southern Fried Chicken stand, offering exactly what it sounds like. On top, Café Superior is a good spot for a latte and baked good or ice cream, if that’s in the offing. Pizza Pizza and Tim Horton’s, two Ontario standbys, offer affordable bites.
Moving up a little, the Hoofbeats Lounge is near track level and is the place for grab-and-go hot items, with a dining room and track side patio. Inside the casino is the Willows Dining Room. It features both buffet and a la carte service and usually has a nightly special for casino-goers. It also features a slide-up noodle bar with quick and savoury soups and noodle bowls. For drinks, there are a number of bar counters as well as sit-down pub spaces within the Grandstand. The Finish Line Bar offers the best view. Each year, an official cocktail is also created for the race. There are stands throughout the Grandstand and track side selling premixed examples; this year was a sweet vodka-and-prosecco-based number named the Royal Blush.
Getting classier, the Woodbine Club Dining Room is a rich, wood-panelled space known for its prime rib. It is a popular place for couples to share a bottle of wine overlooking the track. A lunch buffet is $45, while supper is $50. Finally, the pinnacle of dining within the Grandstand is the Club Lounge. Appointed sumptuously like a Victorian drawing room, this room is for members only and is as much a library, clubhouse, or sitting room as a dining room. It is, quite plainly, stunning, but you will have to know someone to get in.
The list of choices continues on Queen’s Plate weekend, though, if you venture out of the Grandstand. There are dozens of spots in the various garden parties surrounding the track in which access can be purchased. Places like the G.H. Mumm Garden Social, the Hats and Horseshoes party are just a couple of ticketed areas with food, drink, and social events. Topping all these is the very exclusive White Party, held in a private clubhouse on the far side of the track. While the menu could be raved about for an entire article, some highlights include seafood charcuterie platters, multiple carving stations, constant parades of hors d’oeuvres, and of course an open bar.
For most racegoers, though, the food court selections will be the go-to, and for the price, you can do extremely well there. No matter how much racegoers spend, no one should go hungry or thirsty at Woodbine.
Woodbine is currently undergoing something of a transformation from a racecourse and slots casino into a major entertainment neighbourhood. At least six towering cranes loom over one corner of the grounds, with plans in place for wholesale redevelopment of underutilised car parking and open fields on its periphery.
For now, Woodbine is centred on its tall Grandstand, which is in some places showing its age, but is still very much capable of hosting any race. The Grandstand features alternating seating, bars, restaurants, and casino spaces. Walking along, one might pass two or three table games and slots salons, a bar or two, and access to both enclosed and outdoor seating areas. Throughout all of this are plenty of betting terminals and in-person betting desks.
For Queen’s Plate weekend, the massive but exclusive Hats and Horseshoes party is set up around a walking ring with tents for food, drinks, betting, and live music. Well-known headliners play each night of the festival. Beside this garden atmosphere are the open paddocks, where fans can check out the behind-the-scenes of their favourite horses and, naturally, bet on them from within. Helpfully, within this area there is an onsite milliner who can provide fascinator hats for the ladies, as well as florists. The entire area is bedecked with flowers and greenery in a beautiful setting. The horses are paraded to and from the paddock surrounding races and offer a close interaction between spectators and the horse teams. Downstairs near the paddock is an extensive Hall of Fame, which is a great place to familiarise yourself with past winners of the historic races held at Woodbine.
Outside is a statue of Northern Dancer, Canada’s most celebrated racehorse and the leading progenitor of thoroughbreds in the world today. His final race win, the 1964 Queen’s Plate remains one of Canadian horseracing’s greatest moments.
The Grandstand is over seven stories high with sweeping views over the three tracks that comprise Woodbine. Innermost is a turf oval, followed by the slightly wider Tapeta (essentially synthetic dirt) upon which the Queen’s Plate race itself is run, and the outermost course is the E.P. Taylor turf course. Closest to the grandstand, it is similar to many British racecourses in that it is non-ovular, which is a departure from American horse racing courses.
Along the west side, near the so-called clubhouse turn of the Taylor turf course, the clubhouse hosts the White Party. As the most exclusive of all the parties within the festival weekend, this event includes live bands, multiple open bars, sprawling buffets, and a close-up view to the middle Tapeta track and interior turf oval. Access to this event is provided by shuttle from a private parking lot.
In the interior of the racecourse is the beautiful park-like setting of water features and gardens, as well as a bright and modern video board. There is also the Winners’ Circle, sponsored by champagne brand G.H. Mumm. Back to the Grandstand, we find the most notable feature of the facility; its Royal Box.
Bedecked on Queen’s Plate day with flowers and coats of arms, the Royal Box is where members of the Canadian royal family (the same as Britain’s) and their Canadian representatives take in the race. Usually around 3pm on race day, a grand ceremony featuring pipe bands, military parade, and gorgeous horse-drawn chariots will deliver the royal delegation along the red carpet to their box.
With all the pomp and circumstance of this weekend, it can sometimes seem that a few areas of the Grandstand are not quite on the same level. By no means is the facility becoming dilapidated, but surrounded by the flowers, chariots, and beautifully-attired people, the standard décor can be almost incongruous on this weekend.
Woodbine isn’t in the city centre, as few racecourses are anywhere. It is, instead, out by the airport in the northwest corner of Toronto. That’s not to say there aren’t good options for food and drink nearby, but it isn’t as though fans stroll from the grandstand into a mecca of options. This is changing, however, as Woodbine is redeveloping itself into a major hub of theatre, sport, racing, gaming, and living. Construction is well-underway and the area surrounding the tracks, now sparse, will soon be a major destination for all.
In the meantime, if you do wish to eat outside the grounds, Al-Meezan Spicy Grill is across the road and serves Middle Eastern, while Sweet Mahal offers Indian desserts. Around the corner on Islington Avenue is Chubby’s Fish and Chips, and old standby with a very good poutine.
The Queen’s Plate is where Toronto’s high society come out to start their summer social season. This means thousands of men in suits and vests and women competing to outdo one another with spectacular fascinator hats and dresses. Attendance has always been strong and sellouts are the norm on this weekend.
Expect this score to rise as Woodbine’s redevelopment progresses and a planned new train station opens on the Kitchener train line. In the meantime, the best public transportation choice is the 37A bus from Islington subway station direct to Woodbine’s front door. Various other buses from Toronto and surrounding suburbs stop outside the main gates, while the nearest train station, Etobicoke North, is about two kilometres away and connected by various buses.
From certain suburbs, a shuttle bus makes getting there easy. The ride is $10, cash only, and departures are from Scarborough, Markham, Richmond Hill, and Thornhill. This shuttle includes free wifi and a washroom onboard. Tickets can be booked online at casinowoodbine.com/shuttle or can be obtained on a walk-up basis
Car is still the most popular means of access on race weekend, with free parking, or valet for $35. The racecourse is located along Highway 427, though traffic backups on race day can occur, and parking can be a struggle if you don’t arrive early.
Return on Investment 5
For a full day of racing, entertainment, and a true scene, tickets start at an extremely reasonable $15 for the Friday general admission. Costs rise as you get into the big Saturday, and access to the Grandstand itself begins at $43 for the Friday. On the Saturday, expect to pay closer to $100 for those same seats. Premium tickets and tickets for the exclusive parties, on the other hand, can run many hundreds of dollars or more.
With free parking, though, and good deals to be had on food, the day out can leave fans with plenty of money left over for betting and hat-shopping.
An extra point is needed for the fact the Queen’s Plate is much more than the race. Even including the eighteen or more prestigious other races associated with the event (such as the King Edward Stakes), the day includes pageantry, fashion, dining, parties, and the chance to glimpse royalty.
A bonus for the prominent support of breast cancer charities, supported by ticket sales and donations throughout the event.
A bonus for the introduction of very good mobile apps for betting. Woodbine and its sister tracks have launched hpibet.com which means fans can bet without ever leaving their seat.
A final bonus for the redevelopment of Woodbine, which is ambitious and will transform the ground magnificently.
The Queen’s Plate is so much more than just a horse race. It brings a level of pageantry rarely seen at any event and is one of the premier social events in Canada. Often graced by royalty, access is still easily attainable for affordable sums. An integral part of summer and the longest-running horse race on the continent, the Queen’s Plate is a royally good time!