Nova Scotia

Cape Breton University buys old Tartan Downs harness racing track

Cape Breton University, which has seen a massive increase in international student enrolment, has purchased the old Tartan Downs harness racing track in Sydney, N.S. The university says the property will be used for future development.

University says property will be used for future development

Tartan Downs closed in 2006, but horse owners still board some animals in the barns and drivers still take horses and sulkies around the track for training. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Cape Breton University has purchased the old Tartan Downs harness racing track in Sydney, N.S.

The university, which has seen a massive increase in international student enrolment, says the property will be used for future development, but no details are available because the deal won't be finalized until early November.

The facility closed in 2006, but horse owners still board some animals in the barns and use the track for training. There's no word on when they might have to be out of the barns and off the track.

The owner of Tartan Downs, Jack MacNeil, declined to comment until the sale is finalized.

The track opened in 1899 on what was then the outskirts of the city, but housing has long since grown in around the property.

In its heyday, Tartan Downs was popular with horse owners, drivers and spectators, but gambling competition and the closure of Cape Breton's steel plant and coal mines hurt the business. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Greg Sparling, a longtime harness racer, said the track used to be a busy spot.

"Aw, it was the best place," he said. "We used to race Monday, Thursday and Saturday, earlier on, and it was an all-season surface. We could race both winter and summer."

In its heyday, the track was popular with horse owners, drivers and spectators.

"The steel plant was going strong, the fishery, the mines, and there was no lotto machines," said Sparling.

"Well, we had bingo was our only competition, put it that way. No local casino at the time. It was very popular with the miners, fishermen, and generally the local people had a place to go. Fun place to be."

Sparling said competition from casinos, video lottery terminals and televised racing helped put the track out of business.

"People found other places to put their money," he said.

The Tartan Downs property covers nearly 10 hectares just off Upper Prince Street, and includes the track and a couple of old barns. It is zoned for multiple uses, including residential housing. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

In addition, the closure of Cape Breton's steel plant and coal mines hurt the economy and reduced people's disposable income, Sparling said.

Sparling said the track itself was built using slag material from the steel plant, which made it excellent for horses and drivers. The infield, he said, is literally a burial ground for horses that died or had to be put down.

The track had a series of owners over the decades. MacNeil purchased it out of receivership in 1995.

Cape Breton University has been bursting at the seams over the last year or so with a huge increase in international student enrolment.

An undated aerial photo on the Viewpoint Realty website shows how Sydney grew in around the Tartan Downs harness racing track. (www.viewpoint.ca)

According to Viewpoint Realty, the Tartan Downs property includes four parcels of land and covers nearly 10 hectares just off Upper Prince Street.

It is zoned for multiple uses, including some manufacturing, retail, recreation and residential housing.

A decade ago, just after racing was shut down for good, the property's assessed value for taxation was $266,300.

This year, it's assessed at $88,900 and the listed sale price was $259,500.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 16 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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