BY JIM WELLS
Here’s a suggestion for the Minnesota Legislature:
You can atone for years of neglect, abuse and ongoing ignorance of the Minnesota horse racing industry and its attendant benefits to the state with one simple act:
The latest example of the outright abuse of an industry _ touching all corners of the state and the interior, too _ is the shutdown of Canterbury Park.
Breeders, veterinarians, farriers, trainers, owners, riders, exercise boys and girls, hotwalkers, tack suppliers, farmers, graineries, truck drivers and Minnesota horse racing fans are all affected.
Horse racing _ approved overwhelmingly by the citizenry of Minnesota in 1983 _ arrived in 1985 and was not yet on its financial feet when Minnesota lawmakers opened the door to multiple forms of competition that all but wiped out the industry by 1992. Canterbury Downs, then only seven years old, went dark. Weeds began to sprout from the blacktop and other surfaces surrounding the track. Only the vision, commitment and steadfast devotion of the Sampson family revived racing and the associated breeding industry from near certain death in the state. Yet this industry is still only a faction of what it could be with appropriate action from Minnesota lawmakers. There is no better time for that action than now.
Racing needs an infusion of cash. Minnesota needs an infusion of cash. A Racino could satisfy both.
Minnesotans voted in racing by a commanding margin, 60-34 percent, still support it in record turnouts during the racing season _ and with their voices. In one poll after another, seventy percent or more of the state is in favor of a Racino at Canterbury. Few lawmakers pay attention.
The topic of a much-needed racino, whose existence becomes more necessary with each passing year, was a small part of the discussion on Monday, a footnote to other subjects during the annual HBPA general membership meeting at Canterbury.
Once again, more immediate goals _ those of survival _ took precedence over the racing’s long-term plans and hopes of growth.
The four Twin Cities network television affiliates were present, interviewing trainers, jockeys and others associated with racing for their views on the recent shutdown that denied Canterbury Park its most prosperous weekend of the summer and threatens the rest of the meet.
Horsemen are optimists by nature. They could not last in a business built on uncertainty if they were not. Yet, they are realists when it comes to a dollar.
“I have no plans on leaving here,” said trainer Larry Donlin Monday. “But at some point my owners might demand it.”
Donlin can still collect his day fees for stabling, feeding and training a racehorse. The owners of those horses need races and purses to make the investment worthwhile.
Jockey Scott Stevens, sidelined with injuries to both shoulders, had another viewpoint. Annually since 1969, Stevens has spent his winters at Turf Paradise in Phoenix and his summers at Canterbury. He keeps a trailer in Shakopee for his summer living accomodations, but now is considering what before was unthinkable. “I might have to move it out of here,” he said. “If this shutdown continues, horsemen are going to leave with their horses and they aren’t coming back.”
“Not ever,” Stevens added.
Not under this scenario: “It costs a fortune to ship horses all the way from Phoenix to Shakopee,” Stevens added. “A lot of trainers won’t take the chance any more if this shutdown doesn’t end.”
Taking a shot in a race against a better-bred horse is one thing. Taking a shot that a racetrack might close through no fault of its own is quite another.
Stevens is awaiting surgery here later this month on one of this two injured shoulders. He is not riding at present but loves this sport and stays involved, healthy or injured. He is a Canterbury Park Hall of Fame rider who will not leave Shakopee easily. But he, too, is a realist.
Many horsemen eschew tracks offering better purse money for Canterbury, simply because of the clean, well-kept backside, grandstand amenities and unmatched attention from management they receive in Shakopee. Even that might not be enough soon, because of the ever-widening disparity between the money available in Minnesota versus that offered at other tracks with casino operations.
“Pretty soon it will cost more to ship horses here and back (to Phoenix) than a person can earn during a summer,” trainer Doug Oliver said recently.
Monday, track president and CEO Randy Sampson updated horsemen and their stable help during the HBPA meeting on recent developments with the shutdown.
He had little to offer but hope. The hope that an appeal to the courts will permit a resumption of racing, with luck this week.
The HBPA and track offered horsemen and their stable help a free lunch of pizza, hot dogs and drinks after Monday’s meeting. HBPA president Tom Metzen told them that his organization and the track will present them with free meal tickets for the next couple of days.
In addition, Metzen said that horses entered in races eliminated by the shutdown will get anywhere from $500 to $2,000 the next time they race in Shakopee to compensate for those lost opportunities. The track also plans to run most stakes races lost during the shutdown at another point in the meet.
In the meantime, the state’s horse industry and its leading venue, Canterbury Park, are closed for business, struggling for survival once again.
But that’s nothing new in Minnesota. It’s time for a change. It’s time for a Racino.
As Stevens put it Tuesday:”I hope I didn’t break both of my shoulders for nothing.”