Thursday, July 14, 2011

Canterbury Rallies to Try and Save the Season - and It's Future

(UPDATE, JULY 14, 1:36 PM CT - Judge Kathleen Gearin has ruled against Canterbury Park and Running Aces, saying that the funding mechanism for the MRC does require a legislative appropriation.  Racing has been cancelled for Friday and the weekend is in jeopardy as well.)

Two hundred and forty three people responded to the Facebook invitation for the press conference at Canterbury Park.  Nearly 2,000 showed up to hear political leaders speak out for the reopening of the racetrack and even a pitch for budget negotiators to include a racino in any budget agreement.

The homemade signs were great and some very creative.  One espoused the economic virtues of ramen noodles; another that mommy and daddy needed to get back to work; the entire crowd erupted when a horse was walked past the gathering near the winner’s circle with a “Let me run!” blanket draped over its back.

State Senator Claire Robling set the tone early when, addressing horsemen and Canterbury employees she stated that it was “hard for me to look at you because of what the shutdown has done to you.  I’m embarrassed.”

While she alone wasn’t responsible for the impasse, she is part of one half of the problem; guilt by association, if you will.  She did utter a phrase that I’ve been waiting to hear for weeks, “I’d like to see a compromise.”  Compromise, that former cornerstone of American governance, has given way to accusatory negotiations and rigid, dogmatic politicking.  Neither side is immune from responsibility in this disaster.

Robling, and her Minnesota House colleague Michael Beard co-authored a letter to the chief budget negotiators for both parties, that centered around getting Canterbury Park reopened as quickly as possible and working together to approve a racino bill during the coming special session.

The attention was coming at a critical juncture at the track for this season: trainers are coming to the economic realization that it’s time to race or move.  Earlier in the day, trainer Valerie Lund, who brought her stable up from Arizona for the summer, had this to say:

“I cannot afford to train these horses, employ grooms, pay feed, farrier and veterinarians without racing, to generate income for the stable. I do not wish to take my business elsewhere but I am finalizing plans to ship to Ellis Park in Kentucky on Thursday if Canterbury Park does not reopen for racing this week. Many other trainers are finalizing similar plans. If the track loses these large stables it will not have enough horses to run a meet once the government does eventually settle its budget.”

She’s not the only one.  This weekend is the tipping point.  I’ve already noticed more and more horses with their last races at Canterbury Park showing up in the entries and result charts of Prairie Meadows, Arlington Park and even Lincoln Park. 

Trainer Mac Robertson expressed his support for the track and its employees. “I feel worse for the track – the Sampsons and the employees; than I do for myself.  I can hold out for a while,” he said, “but owners want to race.”

Local horsemen like owner/breeder Jeff Hilger also took the stage.  “I am very proud of the horsemen I work with the way they are handling a very, very troublesome situation,” he said.  Hilger has stated during hearings at the capitol that without a racino he would be forced out of the horse business after building a business – and a lifestyle – for decades.  “Horse racing is not the Sport of Kings in Minnesota,” he added.

Perhaps most articulate and heartwarming was jockey Paul Nolan, a transplanted British jockey who chose to make Minnesota his home.  “I’m a jockey,” he said.  “But I am also a Minnesota resident.  I don’t want to ride in Iowa.  I don’t to ride in Illinois.  I want to ride here.”  But in a jockey’s world it’s no ride, no pay, so Nolan is going to have a choice to make sooner rather than later.

From my perspective, Tabby fits a race written for about a week or here at Canterbury: a $7500 starter allowance.  It’s a race we’ve been waiting to be written for weeks, but I dare not wait to point to it should she also be suited for a race at Prairie Meadows in the interim.  I KNOW the Prairie Meadows race is going to run, I don’t know if the politicians and judges in St. Paul will get their act together in enough time to run.  Additionally, all the horses that have had races cancelled out from under them automatically move to the front of the preference line.  I don’t deny the fairness of this; in fact, I agree with and understand it.  But it makes me wonder if we would even get into the race even if we did wait.  Until the new condition book is published at Prairie Meadows, I don’t know what they have to offer but if it ends up being a choice between the two, how do I take a chance on racing here?  If the races end up on the same day, or close to it, I could dual enter, but if they’re not?  I have to take the sure thing over the maybe.

The future of the meet, and perhaps of racing in Minnesota, is in the hands of one judge and a handful of legislators.  The University of Minnesota has pegged the industry as worth nearly a billion dollars to the state and at a time when money is at a premium, you’d think that would mean something. 

Whether or not the meet can survive the shutdown is up to the horse population, said track President and CEO Randy Sampson.  Sadly, if there is no decision from the judge or a resolution by the government shortly, Lund’s statement will prove prophetic.

Mayor John Schmitt of Shakopee summed up the feelings of many when he said, “I was here for day one; I do NOT want to be here for day zero!”

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