A day at the races – the Thorncliffe Riot of 1937

Angry spectators hurl stones and dirt at jockeys during the riot’s peak. Toronto Daily Star, June 7, 1937.
Angry spectators hurl stones and dirt at jockeys during the riot’s peak. Toronto Daily Star, June 7, 1937.

Leaside prides itself on its peaceful reputation. But it’s experienced its share of violence – including a major industrial strike in the late 1940s, several notorious crimes, and at least one bona fide riot that took place at the Thorncliffe racetrack on June 5, 1937.

The Cause

The problem began when some of the horses had not fully entered the starting stall just before the launch of the second race. As the animals took off, track officials immediately declared a false start. Ignoring the callback, many of the jockeys rode the full length of the course – leading 15,000 Thorncliffe spectators to believe the race was valid.

It wasn’t. The horses were ordered to reassemble, and the race was rerun with victory going to a mediocre but fresh horse – Lassie’s Mary – that had stayed behind during the false start. Confused and angry, the crowd started booing. Many had placed winning bets on horses in the false start, only to be told by officials those bets would not be honoured.

Lassies Mary wins race. Globe, June 7, 1937.
Lassie’s Mary wins race. Globe, June 7, 1937.


That’s when it got ugly. As many as 350 incensed fans jumped over the barriers and flooded onto the field, preventing jockeys from lining up for the next race. They hurled mud and stones at the horses. One jockey was struck in the head with a rock. A horse was also hit.

Meanwhile, another crowd stormed the ticket booths demanding their money back. In the ensuing melee, someone threw a brick through a window.

Over loudspeakers, officials pleaded with the protesters to disperse, but to no avail. A small contingent of East York police were on hand, but their numbers were too small to quell the disturbance.

Eventually, 25 special constables had to be deputized on the spot – including Maple Leafs hockey star Charlie Conacher – to forcibly restore order. The riot lasted two-and-a-half hours. 


All three Toronto dailies reported the story – as well as at least a dozen other Canadian papers, the major wire services, and seven U.S. newspapers – including the New York Times. Coverage was often sensational. The Globe & Mail called the riot “a disturbance unparalleled in the history of Canadian racing,” while the Ottawa Citizen termed it “one of the most turbulent scenes ever witnessed on a Canadian track.”

One rioter was arrested and charged with assault; another was fined $10.

Some blamed the East York police for not acting quickly enough to stop the riot.

Others, like the Toronto Telegram newspaper, blamed union activists and communist agitators for the disruption.

Most people, however, agreed that Thorncliffe track officials were at fault for failing to explain fully to the crowd why the second race was being rerun. Track officials were also blamed for not giving the horses sufficient time to rest between the false-start and the make-up race. 

Track officials presumably learned their lesson. No further riots seem to have occurred at Thorncliffe – right up to the day the racetrack closed, in June 1952.


About Ted DeWelles 38 Articles
Ted DeWelles is a retired public relations professional and community college professor. A Leaside resident for more than 20 years, Ted currently serves on the board of the Leaside Heritage Preservation Society. He loves reading, cycling and researching and writing about Leaside’s history.