On June 26 Canterbury Park officially celebrated 25 years of racing in Minnesota. In 1985 Canterbury started life as Canterbury Downs. In those days, Santa Anita Operating Company held the management contract and helped fill the backside with horses conditioned by legends with names like Van Berg, Lukas, Mott and Nafzger. In fact in that inaugural season, Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg was the leading trainer. A couple of jockeys who would also grace the Hall of Fame were part of the original colony as well: Mike Smith and Sandy Hawley.
The Downs ran well for a few years but the advent of the state lottery and a newly developed Native American casino combined with Ladbrooke’s trainwreck management to push Canterbury over the brink of solvency and the track shuttered in 1992. Sadly this was the same year that Minnesota breds were celebrated for the first time on their own special day at the Downs. The outlook for those Minn-breds looked bleak.
The track remained closed for nearly two and a half years and reopened as Canterbury Park in May of 1995. Local businessmen Curt and Randy Sampson and Dale Schenian purchased the Downs and formed Canterbury Park Holding Corporation (as of market close on July 1 the stock price is at $7.82). Over time the Park has developed and grown, adding a card club in 2000 and renovating that card club for the 25th anniversary season. The Claiming Crown was established here in 1999 and has been back virtually every year since with only a couple of exceptions. The Minnesota Festival of Champions was renewed and is a now a fixture the last weekend on the racing calendar.
Saturday was a day to celebrate and reflect on the sometimes turbulent 25 years of pari-mutuel wagering in North Star State. Races all day were named in honor of the 1985 executive staff, original horsemen and even Kraus Anderson, the builders of the Downs and partners in the renovations since. Special homage was paid in the 6th race to Canterbury’s own “Brooks Brothers” (actually nephew and uncle): Brooks Hauser and Brooks Fields (who also has a stake named in his memory). Fields was President and CEO and Hauser was Senior Vice President and Treasurer. Both were extremely successful businessmen in their own right and were instrumental in bringing racing to Shakopee, MN. In that race the inimitable Paul Allen relinquished the microphone duties to original track announcer Tony Bentley for another blast of 80’s nostalgia that matched the 80’s tunes that were blaring over the loudspeaker between races all day.
The weather was excellent, though humid, but the crowd was disappointingly sparse. Official attendance was listed at 3,564 and paled in comparison with the Father’s Day crowd of 12,129 that graced the apron the week before. Certainly there was something nice about the lack of lines and the bumping around, but that feeling was fleeting. We need the crowds and I’d much prefer to battle a packed house. Those in attendance were treated to a print of a poster by renowned racing artist PEB which featured many of the characters that have graced the Shakopee oval over the years including our very own trainer, Bernell Rhone. It was a nice keepsake and looks great with the winner’s circle photos on the wall.
As the track moves towards an uncertain future facing a tough economy and competition from Native American casinos it was nice to take a breath and celebrate the first 25 years of racing in Minnesota. Here’s hoping we’re still racing at America’s best mid-level racetrack in another 25.