John Cardella remembers the days when racing in Ontario was run at five racetracks and hearing news that a new facility, in the Township of Etobicoke out in the Toronto suburbs was being built. Cardella also remembers when that track was built, a state-of-the-art facility on 780 acres known as New Woodbine Racetrack. He remembers Secretariat making his final career start there, in the 1973 Canadian International on the turf.
What Cardella can’t remember is not being at Woodbine, which dropped the “New” in the early 1960s, when opening day finally arrived after a long Canadian winter. He plans to be there again Saturday, when Woodbine celebrates opening day for the 57th time with a ten-race program. There will be a purpose to his presence, too, with three of his 17-horse string entered in the first, fourth, and tenth races.
“I’ve seen opening day for at least 50 years,” Cardella, 82, said Thursday afternoon. “I go so far back that I remember when the big race was the King’s Plate not the Queen’s Plate, that’s how long I’ve been around.”’
Cardella was born and grew up in downtown Toronto. He got his early experiences in racing going with his father to Dufferin Racetrack, one of the five tracks some say made up the “leaky roof” circuit that also included Hamilton, Thorncliffe, Long Branch, and Stamford.
Woodbine, which will run 133 Thoroughbred dates from Saturday through December 15, was born out of an idea from the late E.P. Taylor to consolidate the racing licenses of those five tracks to race at three tracks. Woodbine was the centerpiece of the trio with Fort Erie and Greenwood completing the group.
“When I was a young lad they said they were going to open a new racetrack out here,” Cardella said. “I thought, ‘My God, that’s a long way from downtown Toronto.’ But E.P. Taylor never made a mistake in his life. He did so many things so well.
“I was there for the opening in 1956. It was just a nice day, maybe 35,000, 40,000 people attending it. It’s hard at my age to remember if I ran any horses. I don’t think I did.”
Cardella trained on his own in the early days of Woodbine before working as the top Canadian assistant for the late Frank Merrill, who led all North American trainers by wins three times, was Ontario’s leading trainer 21 times, Canada’s leading trainer 19 times, and a meet leader at Gulfstream Park, Hialeah Park and Arlington Park on multiple occasions during his career. He worked for Merrill, a member of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, from 1964 to 1975.
On his own Cardella was Woodbine’s leading trainer during the summer of 1980 and three years later achieved a lifelong dream when he saddled former $40,000 claimer Bompago to win the Queen’s Plate. He’s trained plenty of other stakes winners through the years, including Casino Prince Classical Romance, Doneraile Gem, Lil Personalitee, and Olympian.
Cardella earned the nickname “Coldwater Kid” from late reknowed Toronto sports columnist Jim Proudfoot for his liberal use of the hose on ankles, knees, legs.
“He started calling me that when he was coming to Frank Merrill’s barn and I’d be hosing the horses,” Cardella said “Frank Merrill said, ‘That’s great stuff John, you’re doing great stuff.’ Frank Merrill was winning like 100, 105 races a year back then. I remember once I was in Florida when we opened up in the middle of March at Greenwood. Frank just told me ‘just do what you do.’ I was looking after 35 at Woodbine and he told me to run them where I want, when I want. I won 17 races at Greenwood. He was pretty proud of me then”
He loves the game as much today as he did as a younger man. He loves being around horses and horse people. He loves putting a few bets down on his horses and on stakes races.
“I used to have more horses when I was younger but I’m happy,” he said. “I’m not promoting myself too much now, but I’m having a good time and enjoying myself. I’ve made a lot of money in this business, a fortune. Not only from training good horses but I also owned 50 percent of a lot of the horses I trained. When I was in my 40s I was training for guys in their 60s. They let me buy in. I’d claim a horse for $30,000, $40,000 and by the time I retired them three or four years down the road they’d have made a quarter or half-million dollars, and I owned half of them.
“I always say I had 29 good years, excellent years. I was making a lot of money and paying a lot of income tax. The government could get their $10,000, $15,000 every quarter.”
Cardella said he hopes he can live another 20 years, to see more opening days at Woodbine, more mornings, more Queen’s Plates, or maybe even another King’s Plate someday. The mornings and afternoons keep him going. He wants it no other way.
“I’m certainly not doing anything else and I’m not retiring,” he says with a laugh. “The only day I’m going to retire is when they carry me out of here, hopefully in a nice box. Maybe they’ll put a couple cashed tickets in my coffin. Or maybe uncashed tickets and I can cash them up in heaven.”