By Beverley Smith for woodbine.com
TORONTO, October 30 – Legend has it that scary monsters such as the Headless Horseman, the Hyde of Mr. Jekyll, the Hunchback of Notre Dame — perhaps even that loopy Phantom of the Opera — stirred a populace that feared the night.
But the Legend of Mohawk Raceway is Goofy. We’re not sure what emotion Goofy stirred, but it wasn’t fear.
Let’s revisit the country track on Oct. 31, 1981, Halloween night, a night when most good harness horsemen were plying their trade, noses to the grindstone, eyes on the prize. Racing stops for nothing, not even for trick-or-treaters.
As horses from the eighth race were furiously pacing their way to the three-quarter pole, manes flying, sulky wheels spinning, judges, spectators, race starters, drivers, trainers, and grooms — everybody really — spotted a rider and horse emerging from the darkness of the long road stretching to the backstretch barns, swallowed up in trees and more trees.
From the frontside, the Mohawk backstretch seemed to be a place beyond the pale, a secret, unknown place, a sealed book, a riddle, a dark horse of a place.
A few streetlight poles lit the way. Not much else.
The horseman charged onto the track behind the field. And much to everyone’s astonishment, he followed them all around to the finish wire. Forget the race. All eyes were on the horseman, who was somewhere he shouldn’t be.
He crossed the wire, triumphant, elbows up in the air, giving his stocky, plucky mount his head. And then this guy in the denim overalls disappeared back into the darkness on the road that leads to the backstretch. Obviously, his horse was in good shape. He just never stopped running.
As he thundered down the homestretch, the horseman gave a big wave to everybody.
To this day, nobody knows the identity of the horseman.
Doug Elliott, a manager of the Ontario Jockey Club, as it was called at the time, immediately ordered an investigation. Kevin Murphy, OJC security chief at the time, sniffed out the facts, as well as he could.
Fortunately, the astounded photo-finish man had the presence of mind to keep the cameras rolling to record the incident. Snap! And he had it on film.
“They gave me a print of it,” Murphy said. He took it to show to Elliott who anxiously blurted: “Well, who is it?”
“Goofy,” Murphy replied.
“I don’t care what you think about it,” Elliott said. “Who was it?”
“It’s Goofy,” Murphy said, and handed him the photo-finish picture.
Proof positive. The horseman was wearing a Goofy mask, in honour of Halloween.
“We never figured out who he was,” Murphy said.
But really, “Everybody thought it was kind of cute,” he said. The horseman hadn’t interfered with the race. He ran around the track far behind the field.
Up in the judges’ stand was Gerard Spoor, whose memory of the incident is still fresh, like it was yesterday, not 36 years ago. “I was actually sitting there waiting to see if he was coming out or where he was coming from,” he said. Like he was expecting it. Incredibly, Spoor saw two appearances by the mystery Goofy. It happened once when he was a judge, again when he was in OJC management. There was an encore performance, sometime back in the misty past.
“I tried to figure out where he was coming from,” he said. “He was alone.
“It was one of those funny things that happened and I guess one of the few places where you could do that and have fun with it. That was the fun part. I suppose if you did that at Woodbine, everybody would [pile on] Goofy. But here, it was actually fun.”
It was, Spoor said, a sign of the community of jokesters that existed at that site, at that time. “They liked to do stuff like that,” he said. He remembers fall fairs at Mohawk, with promotions of celebrities riding buffalo around the track. He recalls that one of the buffalo had been named Harvey Wallbanger. So memorable. But the Goofy showing wasn’t planned.
To this day, people wonder who was behind the mask. He was the Lone Ranger of Woodbine, minus some buttons, shall we say, although few knew the motives. Perhaps it was just all in fun, to spark up a long night of serious business. There has been plenty of speculation over the years about who did the deed. Perhaps, suggested one, it was Gay Gillespie, the woman who was parade marshall/outrider at the OJC’s standardbred tracks for 13 years. After all, she certainly knew how to ride a horse, and a breakneck speed if she had to. And who knew whether or not this person was male or female?
“Nope,” she said, silencing that rumour. “It wasn’t me. Because I was watching.”
Perhaps, it was suggested that this Goofy impersonator, as stark raving mad as she/he might be, didn’t actually come from the backstretch at Mohawk at all. There was a gate back there, leading to the dark beyond, down a concession, where there were farms. There was a nearby farm that everybody dubbed “the Funny Farm.” That might have been the perfect respite for a certifiable mystery rider who wanted to bring Goofy to life in an equestrian way. As Freddie Mercury would say: someone who was “knitting with one needle.”
Perhaps. Maybe. Might. Nobody knows.
And if Mohawk was a site that could breed all of these crazy antics, had anything else ever happened that was just as deliriously and deliciously nuts?
Nope, said Murphy. Not in his memory.
“It was my highlight,” he said.