Friday marks the start of the Canterbury Park racing season – the Saratoga of the Midwest, if you will. Okay, that’s probably overstating it quite a bit, but the start of live racing ushers in summer in the North Star State and with temperatures predicted to be in the upper 80’s on Friday it certainly will feel the part.
The feeling on the backstretch and among owners is optimistic and that is a huge change from past years. In the five years that I’ve been involved in Minnesota racing each year always started with lamenting of reduced purses, fear of the future and even a reduction in racing days. Opening day used to coincide with the Kentucky Derby but now its Preakness weekend. Last year the racing community was ravaged by a state shutdown that, for three weeks, ceased racing, simulcasting and card operations at the track. With purse levels contingent on previous year’s revenue the 2011 season ended with an eye on how long the track would survive; all this for an operation that has logged year over year average attendance records for the last several years. There were questions on what the future was going to bring – without a racino, Minnesota racing was going to be dead in the water in three years.
The legislative session started with some hope that 2012 was going to be the year that racino finally passed – either as part of a Vikings stadium package or to repay the money for schools that was pulled forward to balance the budget. Track President Randy Sampson and Equine Development Coalition of Minnesota President and Canterbury Park Hall of Fame breeder Jeff Hilger worked tirelessly to try and bring that to fruition while the Native American casino coalition worked just as hard to protect their business interests. The only winners in that scenario? The lawyers and lobbyists.
After a suggestion from Governor Mark Dayton that the track try to talk directly to the Tribes, Sampson and Hilger reached out and Mdewakanton Sioux chair Stanley Crooks and the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association reached back. As a result, the two sides were able to come up with an historic agreement that resulted in a bill that was signed by the governor that breathed life into racing and, more importantly, started a dialogue between the racing and casino interests that could have positive repercussions for years to come (details here).
REDUCED TAKEOUT ON PICK 3 & 4
For those that don’t focus on the wagering part of the business, “takeout” is the percentage of each wager that is removed from the pool to pay the state, horsemen, track, etc before it is paid back to patrons in the form of winning bets. Traditionally racing has had a very high takeout and that makes a tough game to beat even tougher. Last year these multi-race wagers carried a takeout of 23%. In a tremendously pro-player action, Canterbury Park announced this past week that these wagers will only carry a 14% takeout – a huge reduction and a great gesture to horseplayers.
“We’re excited to offer our players the lowest Pick 4 takeout rate and the second-lowest Pick 3 takeout rate in North America,” Canterbury Park President Randy Sampson said. “We understand that players are price-sensitive and have many options as to where to bet their wagering dollar. It’s our hope that this lower takeout makes Canterbury Park the place to play horizontal wagers.”
The player advocacy group, Horseplayers Association of North America (HANA), took notice and made the decision the focal point of a blog post the other day, asking players to give Canterbury a look when deciding where to play.
HANA and others have argued that lowering takeout and making the game more profitable for players will, in turn, generate more handle that is the lifeblood of the industry. Ultimately greater increases in handle would raise purses and create a business environment where owners can do more than hope to just break even.
However lowering takeout is only the first step toward making this move a successful one. The second step is having full and competitive fields. The wager needs to have the potential for high payouts to draw attention and fields of 6 won’t get that job done. Nice 9 or 10 horse fields over the three or four races gives players the potential for four figure payouts and will start drawing the wagering dollars from across the country.
Day one of racing Friday night features field sizes of 7, 6, 8, 10, 10, 6, 8, 11. It’s a mixed start with a couple of six horse fields, but both Pick 4 sequences have two races with 10 or more entries – not perfect, but a really nice start. Hopefully players take notice – there’s literally no better place to play these wagers in the country.
FRIDAY NIGHT OPENER
Friday night post time is 7 PM with eight races scheduled. The first stakes races of the season are on tap on Saturday with the 10,000 Lakes and Lady Slipper Stakes for Minnesota breds racing for a purse of $35,000. With no possibility of a state shutdown and the very real possibility of increased purses and a cooperative relationship with the Native American community, it looks to be the start of one of the best seasons in recent memory.
See you there!