Fancy hats, the Kentucky Derby and the Royal Ascot are all synonymous with horse racing. In Ontario, Woodbine’s Queen’s Plate is the biggest, fanciest equine event of the year. Held Canada Day weekend, the Queen’s Plate is a fantastic, fascinator-dotted bash—it’s also the oldest continuously run race in North America!
These days, there’s more reason than ever to visit Woodbine Racetrack (even when they aren’t hosting a world-famous fête!). It’s not just the races that draw crowds to this Etobicoke track. There’s also posh nosh, fun bars, fantastic concerts, a casino, as well as some splendidly lush grounds.
If you haven’t been to a horse race, though, it’s an experience not to be missed. Four days a week, Woodbine hosts live races that offer all the thunderous entertainment of a herd of horses roaring past, with added stakes. Put a bit of money on the line and commit to your favourite thoroughbred. If they cross the finish line first, the winnings could pay for your next round (or three, depending on the odds).
To help you plan the perfect trip to Woodbine, Toronto Life has curated the perfect pony-filled day. Here’s the best way to spend a Saturday afternoon at the races.
Although the horse racing kicks off around 1 p.m., it’s best to arrive a bit early. Parking is free. Spots, however, fill up fast. Early birds can secure a spot and then pop into the casino to test their luck while the horses are still waking up.
Pause to enjoy the pony parade as the day’s stars are led from their stables, past the grandstand main entrance, to stretch their legs prior to the races. As the horses saunter past, just a few feet away from onlookers, their athleticism is on full display. These majestic 1,200-pound creatures are pure muscle.
Except for ticketed events like the Queen’s Plate, visitors are free to sit anywhere they please. With the sun at its zenith, grab a little shade trackside at Hoofbeats Lounge. Later in the day, spots under these red umbrellas can be hard to snag. With a frosty beverage in hand, this is a great vantage from which to take in your first race.
Now that the first race has wrapped up, your appetite for betting has probably been whet, as has your actual appetite. The Woodbine Club Dining Room has a phenomenal buffet and à la carte options sure to impress even the snobbiest of foodies. Reservations are recommended, and don’t worry about missing out on the next race: the restaurant overlooks the track and every table is outfitted with a TV dedicated to screening the races.
Go back for seconds at the buffet, which is lined with all manner of epicurean options, from citrus-cured trout to perfectly cooked prime rib roast. Every item in the buffet, be it a mushroom salad or a five-minute-cooked turmeric egg rolled in black sesame seeds, is a cut above your usual buffet fare.
Save room for dessert! For special occasions, chef Michael Mortensen might even pop out for a meet and greet. He’s overhauled the food program here and is proud to say he makes everything—from the charcuterie to the cookies —in-house. “I am inspired by what we feed the horses, so we will smoke dishes in hay sometimes,” he says, drizzling caramel on an ultra-moist pistachio cake.
After a late lunch, head down to the paddock. Here, hot walkers lead the thoroughbreds around to loosen them up. While the horses stretch their legs, betters suss out which fillies are looking particularly spry, which mare has that special winning glint in its eyes, and who’s likely to shove their nose across that finish line first. This is also where you can watch the jockeys mount their steeds right before they head to the track.
Look for Hugh Nicholson—better known as Mr. Woodbine by racetrack regulars. He works in customer service, which is located on the second floor. Hugh is the person to give you the world’s most impassioned three-minute introduction to horse racing. He’s been working here for almost three decades, and he lives and breathes horse racing. “You need to really look a horse over before you place a bet,” he says. “Just because the odds are in their favour doesn’t mean they’ll win.”
Hugh, or one of his co-workers, will be happy to explain to you the different bets you can place and how to use the self-service terminals. With 10 minutes to go before the next race, it’s time to lock in your bets.
There are three different courses horses can run at Woodbine, the longest of which is the 2.4- kilometre outer track called the E. P. Taylor Turf Course. For these races, the horses pass by spectators with mere feet between them. You can see the grimaces on the jockeys’ faces, hear the heavy breathing of the horses as they rush past, and feel the ground shake slightly under their tremendous power. Make sure to score a trackside spot for races on these courses.
Snap a selfie with the winner as they get hosed down in the winner’s circle.
Finish the afternoon at Champion’s Bar and Patio with a refreshing Royal Blush cocktail, invented last year for the Queen’s Plate. The tables look down on the finish line, making this a perfect place to end your day and take in a few more races.
After a full day of fun, sun and a few wins, it’s time to pack it in. There’s one more race on the docket at 6:00 p.m., but after beating the odds all day, why not beat the crowds on the way out.