Much of the history of Minnesota racing, pre-dating the Canterbury facility, resides in the minds of those that participated. There are the rare programs from a meet conducted at the Anoka Fairgrounds in the ’70s or a faded winners’ circle photo, but the majority of the history is of the spoken variety. And that history tends to change with each retelling.
The stories are retold vividly including those from one of the pioneers in the early days of Minnesota racing, Asher Murray, best known as a four-time Minnesota Festival of Champions winning quarter horse trainer. He won the Minnesota Futurity in 1995 with Hy Whistlin Willie, in 1999 with Cracklin Cash, and in 2002 with The Grindstone, all owned by his brother Jim Murray. Cracklin Cash won the 2000 Minnesota Derby, Asher’s fourth Festival tally, and was named Quarter Horse of the Meet that season.
Most of what Asher refers to as his “good horses” were raised by either close friends or his brother. He claims the most expensive horse he ever purchased was a $3,200 acquisition that won four times. He also had a horse named Susan for President that he came by for $1,800 that ran out $27,000 in 13 months.
It was the fast ones that he was surrounded with that brought him to the bush tracks of Minnesota from his hometown of Wadena in the early 1970s as a young man. He participated in the races at Lake Elmo north of the Twin Cities. He also raced in Aberdeen, South Dakota and at the long-defunct and fabled Park Jefferson in North Sioux City. Many of the legends in Minnesota racing were on the circuit – Steve Erban, the Bethkes including brothers Troy, Bill and Shane, the Warhol family, and the McKinleys.
Asher moved to Watertown to raise a family. “We lived on a farm right behind Bob Morehouse. An airstrip was on that property we lived on behind Bob,” said Asher’s daughter Julie. It was on that airstrip that Asher galloped his horses. “I was fascinated by the Morehouse family,” Julie said. “Bob was in movies and his horses were in the magazines stacked at our house. It felt like we lived next to royalty.”
It may have been Asher’s influence that led Bob Morehouse, now a Canterbury Hall of Famer, to quarter horse racing for Morehouse soon had the stallion Jet A Van, and Asher was racing his offspring. Incidentally it was a quarter horse mare by Jet A Van that produced that great runner Cash Caravan who was future Canterbury Park Chairman Curtis Sampson’s introduction to horse racing. And Curt’s resurrection of Canterbury in 1994 made it possible to be racing today.
It was the quarter horse people that were the driving force behind legalization of pari-mutuel racing in Minnesota. When Canterbury Downs finally opened and invited quarter horses to run in 1986, it was Asher who was the first quarter horse trainer to obtain a license. He had shipped from Rapid City where he had been racing to the Malkerson’s training center in Shakopee. “I was close so I just drove on over,” he said.
Involved in racing for decades, Asher also had a straight job. He spent 35 years as a PBX
Technician for Verizon. With the flexibility of his employer and the accumulation and strategic deployment of PTO, he was always able to train. He stayed because he loved the sport and the horses. “I always made money. Always had good horses,” he said. He also enjoyed the crowds, “all good people,” and the camaraderie of Canterbury, the fans in the grandstand asking him if his horse would win. And win he did with, especially with Hy Whistlin Willie, named after Asher’s son who couldn’t whistle as a kid, who reeled off five in a row in 1995 and Cracklin Cash who won six stakes at Canterbury.
Barn D-8 on the Canterbury backstretch is where Asher was stabled from 1995 to 2012 when he left training. That barn became a gathering place for many. “We fed a lot of people,” he said. “The refrigerator was always full. Every night the grill was going. People knew that they could come over and get something to eat.” A groom five days away from a paycheck could always find a meal if needed. “The tack room was never locked. There were couches, chairs, recliners. Two card tables going every night. That’s what that barn meant to a lot of people.”
Now his other daughter Briannah McDaniel is in D-8 training thoroughbreds and quarter horses.
She loved barrel racing and the racetrack as a child. “Always would want to go to the track,” Asher said. It was inevitable that she would follow in Asher’s footsteps. Asher is still at the barn regularly but makes it clear that Bri is the trainer. “I just clean stalls,” he said. And then added, “Maybe I’ll make a suggestion now and then.”
Briannah has two entered in the Minnesota Quarter Horse Futurity on Wednesday’s Minnesota Festival of Champions Night. Asher will present the trophy to the winner of the race, the race he won three times as a trainer, and perhaps he will present it to himself as one of Briannah’s entrants, Trippin Guns, is owned by Asher Murray.