The 113-year-old judge's stand at Charlottetown's Driving Park was back in the hub of activity this past year - if with a handicap-thanks to Hurricane Juan.
Hurricane Juan turned the clock back on Maritime harness racing at the Charlottetown Driving Park last fall, forcing race officials from their viewing box high atop the grandstand, back to the 113-year-old judge's stand, positioned centre-field.
For veteran announcer Vance Cameron of Summerside, every race he called while temporarily housed at the judge's stand-until the grandstand was deemed structurally sound again-has been a logistical adventure. He's come to significantly appreciate the challenges of his predecessors who, from 1889 until the 1970s, worked from the top floor of the three-storey stand. "It's not a vantage point," he says, comparing it to the elevated grandstand box, which provides an all-encompassing view of what is commonly referred to as Atlantic Canada's most beautiful raceway.
"It's a disadvantage point!"
Cameron recalls a time when he and the other judges worked from the judge's stand during Charlottetown's Old Home Week three years ago, but that was a one-off event, done for fun and nostalgia. It was a relaxed atmosphere that everyone enjoyed, comfortable in the knowledge that they could return to the more functional grandstand at will. But the latter half of last year and the first half of this year, working 12 races per event, week in and week out, has been a "nightmare," Cameron says, nearly impossible to see who's who on the outside of the track, as horses, sulkies (carts) and drivers jockey for position.
The old judge's stand is somewhat analogous to Foster Hewitt calling games from the ancient gondola high atop the rafters of Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens. No modern-day Bob Cole would trade the comfort of the Air Canada Centre media box for Hewitt's precarious perch above the ice.
Charlottetown's race judges worked from the second floor of the stand, as Cameron and the person who charts the races-records the times at the quarter, half, three-quarter and the completion of the mile-operated from the third level. They were in constant movement in an effort to monitor, chart and call the progress of the eight sulkies that compete during each race; following their circumference of the track, spotting familiar colours, numbers and other unique characteristics that Cameron, working without the aid of binoculars, swears he can normally easily recognize.
"It's made me really admire announcers like Ed Waters [former CDP announcer and CFCY radio personality]," he says. One thing Cameron says he's learned this past year is that if a mistake is made calling the progress of a race, if you keep the flow going and don't stumble, race fans aren't likely to pick up on the gaffe-so long as the finish is accurate, that is.
The first race to be called from the stand was on October 2, 1889, in an era when the long-gone original grandstand, exhibition building, judge's stand and the half-mile track itself, were the pride of Prince Edward Island. According to the 1988 publication Sulkies, Silks, Cups and Saucers by Charles Duerden, the facility was modelled on a design by a Mr. Fasig of Cleveland, Ohio. The presidency of the Driving Park was held in those earliest days by FL Haszard, who would later become the province's premier and later still, Lieutenant Governor.
Norman Hall of Charlottetown, who was once President of the Board of Directors and has been in the race game in one capacity or another for 35 years, talks of the judge's stand, now a national historic site, as though it were his birth home.
"It's a symbol of the tradition of the Island," he says, "of the durability of the racing industry on the Island." He adds that it is an iconic symbol of Island lifestyle, a reminder of days when small matinee tracks operated all over the province, in communities such as Souris, Kensington, Belfast and where one still operates today, at St. Peters Bay.
Hall, who keeps his hand in the equine business as one of only a half-dozen standard bred pedigree consultants in the world, says the judge's stand was brought back to its original glory in 1999 in a campaign that attracted thousand-dollar donations from a string of racing-keen Islanders. The stand is now used as a venue for functions-each contributor to that campaign has a designated, dedicated annual date for the hosting of friends, family and associates there. Retrofitted as it is on the inside with a bar and topside seating, it can hold as many as 50 people.
It is the oldest existing judge's stand in North America, says Hall, with the exception of a similarly structured stand at the home of the Delaware County Fairgrounds, reaffirming a connection to Ohio.
As for Cameron, he was back in his digs in the repaired grandstand box this summer, looking at the historic judge's stand instead of from it-ever hopeful that the 2004 hurricane season will bypass Atlantic Canada.