The horses approach the starting line, hit full stride, and they're off! Hooves pound the red dust and, as the field approaches the home stretch, they are neck and neck and it's too close to call. As the crowd rises to its feet, you can feel the excitement hang heavy in the air. This is an excitement which Kensington residents have been feeling for well over a hundred years, as the love affair between our area and harness racing dates back to the mid-nineteenth century.
Many suggest that the first public racetrack on P.E.I. was built near Kensington at Travellers Rest in 1877. Conditions at these early tracks left much to be desired, and the race was often decided by factors other than the speed of the horses. Standard farm machinery-- such as iron plows, harrows, and rollers-- were used to build the tracks, and unpredictable and treacherous potholes were very much par for the course. A bad step into one of these pits could end a horse's career, not to mention giving quite a jolt to the driver rattling along behind in the high-wheeled sulky.
Much of the excitement surrounding these horse races came from the heated rivalries that arose between horse owners. Most of the race horses were simply farm horses unhitched from farm equipment, and the main prize at stake was local bragging rights. With all this prestige attached to having the fastest horse in town, or in the district, it was no wonder that so many Islanders were so vehemently against the importation of mainland blood and preached the virtues of Island stock. When there was a race between a local horse and one imported 'from away,' a considerable amount of pride was put on the line. In 1888, an Island businessman imported a famous horse called Hernando and pitted him against the local favorite, Black Pilot. Held at the Summerside track, the showdown set the record for the most attended race in Eastern Canada, with up to six thousand spectators filling the grandstands. Special trains crisscrossed the Island to get spectators there on time, and so many arrived by wagon and carriage that the race had to be delayed until the traffic jam was dispersed. But the mob went home happy, as Black Pilot proceeded to steal a slim victory in the five-heat race.
The most famous track near Kensington was the site of the New Annan Races, an annual event that took on legendary proportions during its heyday in the early twentieth century. In 1910, a New Annan race track was started up by John J. MacKinnon-- known in racing circles as 'Jockey Jack'-- and he ran matinee races for several years. Then, in 1912, James Pendergast and Jim MacDonald decided to up the ante, organizing a race meet that would adhere to the rules of the National Trotting Association. During its first year, the New Annan race was a break-even affair; after charging the men 25 cents admission (ladies were admitted free), each of the partners managed to pocket a sum total of $1.50.
But the first running of the event was only a pale shadow of what it would become over the years. The next year, a grandstand was added at New Annan, and it was filled to the top with avid racefans. Vendors sold tickets and scorecards, and a large crew brushed the track prior to the running of the race to ensure the fastest times. Increasingly, the race took on all the trappings of a Barnum and Bailey carnival, with a full day of attractions leading up to and following the horse race itself. A huge dining tent was put up to feed the thousands of people in attendance. Between heats, the strains of fiddle music would fill the air and local dancers would step lightly to the toe-tapping melodies. The grounds were crammed with barkers offering novelties or a crack at a game of chance, and the crowd was entertained between races by boxing matches, gymnastic feats, and bare-back riding competitions. At a certain point, these displays of bravery and prowess must have generated just as much interest as the race card itself!
Certainly, the New Annan event became far more than a horse race, and for twenty-three years, people would plan their work around the date to ensure that they did not miss a single moment. However, all good things must come to an end, and by 1935, the Depression had deprived Kensington residents of the money and high spirits that made the happening everything it was. The New Annan races live on only in the memories of people who were there, most of whom still rank the event among the highlights of their lives.