Why 20,000 people gather to watch the Gold Cup & Saucer race at midnight

1 / 8
Why 20,000 people gather to watch the Gold Cup & Saucer race at midnight

The Gold Cup & Saucer race has it all: colourfully-dressed ambassadors in shiny cars, horses and sulkies in the spotlight and even the words of P.E.I.-born writer Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables.

The race takes place at two minutes to midnight every year, as part of Old Home Week, an annual celebration of all things Prince Edward Island that draws home Islanders from around the world.

Depending on the weather, Saturday night's final race attracts anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 people, filling the grandstands and along the railing, as far as the eye can see. 

'Steeped in tradition'

The Gold Cup & Saucer race, which started in 1960, is now the pinnacle of 10 days of harness racing and attracts horse owners, trainers and drivers from across North America. 

"It's a presentation that is seen at no other racetrack in North America," said Lee Drake, marketing manager for Red Shores.

"They don't do anything the way it's done here, it's steeped in tradition." 

The Gold Cup ambassadors were added in 1961, then known as Gold Cup girls, dressed in racing silks, each driven in a colourful convertible.

Each ambassador draws a horse and the one representing the winning horse gets to share the winner's circle. 

Before the big race, the lights are dimmed and the horses come onto the track in darkness.  

New Brunswick driver Gilles Barrieau has won the Gold Cup & Saucer four times, second only to P.E.I.'s Mike MacDonald, who has won it five times.

"The atmosphere, under the spotlight, it's just a big thrill," said Barrieau, who had a come-from-behind victory in 2017 with Shadow Place.

"It's the biggest crowd I've ever witnessed, especially around here in the Maritimes.  You don't witness that many people in front of a grandstand other than this particular race."

Hear a pin drop

Once the horses are on the track, the crowd stands for the singing of The Island Hymn, with lyrics written in 1908 by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Kerri Wynne MacLeod has performed P.E.I'.s anthem on Gold Cup night for the last 15 years. She still remembers the first time.

"I really didn't know what it looked like from centre field and it's so different, everybody just gets so quiet for the singing of The Island Hymn," said MacLeod. 

"When I turned around and saw all those people for the first time, my heart just sunk but it went well."

The singing of the anthem is also the time when organizers are often making the decision whether or not the race will proceed.

MacLeod has had to come back on Sunday to sing The Island Hymn after the race is postponed because of weather. 

Spectacular moment

"To be among all the pomp and circumstance one night and then just about ready to sing and then they've had to cancel it because of unsafe track conditions and then go again the next day," MacLeod said.   

"It's fantastic doing it the next day as well but of course in the daytime, it's just not as much drama as there is at nighttime." 

MacLeod is looking forward to her 16th Gold Cup performance.

"Even though it's only one song, it is The Island Hymn and it is a tradition," MacLeod said. 

"I still get nervous every time those lights go down, it's just a very honourable spot to be, facing all those people, it's a pretty spectacular moment."

Worldwide audience

The Gold Cup & Saucer is now broadcast around the world, via satellite and online, and is expected to reach more than 100,000 people in 2018. 

And, as usual, it will start at two minutes to midnight.

"It's part of the tradition, we don't mess with what's made this race so great and that's part of it," Drake said.

"A race going at two minutes to midnight, there's just something about it that always adds to the appeal. It's just a great show."

More P.E.I. news