BY JIM WELLS
The admonition about the “grass is always greener” might actually apply to Canterbury Park this spring. Minnesota’s only thoroughbred/quarter horse track prepares to open for live racing Friday night without some of the problems plaguing other racing jurisdictions.
Opening night and the next few weeks of racing should demonstrate if there is truly a difference between the Minnesota model and the rest of the country.
Across the nation racetracks are experiencing declines in attendance and wagering and, just as notable, in horse populations. It doesn’t take Scotland Yard to locate the culprit: the economy, depending on the source, hasn’t been in the dumps like this since the Great Depression or at least for the last 25 years.
Either way, it is responsible for a drastic decline in consumer spending, particularly with the entertainment dollar.
Canterbury is opening two weeks later than usual in an effort to keep purses at previous levels and is eliminating some races as well. Horsemen seem prepared to live with that and begin the meet with a hopeful if not optimistic attitude.
Their leader, local HBPA president Tom Metzen, seems to fit the optimistic example.
“Some people don’t know how good this is compared to a lot of places,” Metzen said. “The people I’ve talked to are very glad to be here.”
There is one obvious reason for Metzen’s optimism, particularly concering the contract with management. “I have to think it was a good idea because I signed the contract,” he said.
Metzen views the late start to the season as a good tradeoff for keeping purses intact. “When you realize that we only run two days each of the first two weeks but that employees have to be paid for an entire week _ the gate crew, the grounds crew, the ambulance people _ it makes sense not to run,” he said. “It costs the track a lot of money for four days of racing and by cutting them we saved cutting our purses, which we felt was as or more important than those four days.”
Canterbury president/CEO Randy Sampson was concerned on Wednesday as he prepared to reveal a 20 percent decline in revenue for the first quarter, but remains hopeful about the upcoming meet nonetheless.
“I guess the overall answer to this is that in terms of the number of horses on the backside, the jockeys we have and how things are coming together, I think we’ll have a very good race meet,” he said. “We should be fine in getting people out to the races.”
There is a concern about wagering revenue, on the races and in the card club, and that will determine the always crucial part of a race meet _ maintaining purse levels.
“We’re trying to manage our purses (with a reduction in race days and some races) and we hope the revenue is adequate so that we don’t have to make purse cuts, something we have never done in the history (since 1995) of Canterbury Park.”
Sampson isn’t concerned about attracting people to Canterbury. He maintains that lower gas prices this season and the track’s appeal to families will continue to attract crowds. Getting those people to the windows is the challenge.
Here is where horse population plays a part. Many tracks, even the icons of the sport, are experiencing shortages of horses, another aspect of the economy. Breeders have cut back, many owners and trainers are not shipping great distances because of cost, and shorter fields translate into reduced wagering and a decrease in revenue.
Canterbury does not appear to have such a problem heading out of the gate.
“California might be the best example of a lack of horses,” Metzen said. “Hollywood Park is running all kinds of five-horse fields. Golden Gate recently carded a bunch of five-horse fields.There are just not that many around.”
That doesn’t appear to be an issue _ at least not yet _ in Shakopee.
Stall superintendent Mark Stancato was hoping for 1,000 horses on opening day and counted 1003 horses on the grounds on Wednesday, with more coming.
“I think we’re luckier than heck,” Metzen added. “But it’s the treatment people get when they come here. They are hunting for horses in Iowa and their purses are twice ours, but people prefer to come here because of the way they are treated.”
Canterbury’s opening card for the 2009 season features eight races with 10 horse fields in five of them, a 12-horse field and six and eight horses slated to line up in the other two.
Saturday’s nine-race card includes eight horses for the $35,000 Lady Slipper Stakes and 10 for the 10,000 Lakes. One race features 11 horses, four races have eight-horse fields and two have six horses.
Sunday’s nine-race card has 12 horses in a Minnesota-bred Allowance feature, two 10-horse races, one nine-horse race, one with an eight-horse field, three with seven and one with six.
No one is happier to be back in the saddle than defending riding champ Derek Bell, although he’ll get limited opportunity on the opening card with only two mounts.
“I got hosed at the entry box,” he said. “They called off four races, all Mac Robertson horses. They wouldn’t let (those races go) with only five horses.”
Bell has ridden only once since the 2008 meet at Canterbury. He rode a Robertson horse to a second-place finish at Prairie Meadows two weeks ago.
He had hoped to ride for the Robertson barn last winter but Oaklawn Park wouldn’t permit him to ride. Canterbury Park is the only place he’s been allowed to ride since his suspension with eight other jockeys more than two years ago at Tampa Bay Downs as an on-going investigation continues to deny him and some of the others of ordinary rights assumed by most Americans.
Bell spent the winter exercising top-flight horses and breaking babies at Vinery Farm in Ocala, Fla. “I’m ready to go. I’m anxious,” said Bell, who won an unprecedented sixth riding title in 2008.
Hall of Fame rider Scott Stevens rivals Bell for enthusiasm about the upcoming meet. He left Canterbury with a broken leg last season, underwent surgery in Phoenix, wondered in January if he would ever ride again, resumed riding at Turf Paradise on March 23 and brought in 16 winners by meet’s end.
“Oh, yes,” I’m glad to be back,” Stevens said.
So, too, are several stalwarts from last year’s training ranks: Robertson, Tammy Domenosky, Mike Biehler, Bernell Rhone, Dave Van Winkle, Troy Bethke and Todd Hoffrogge to name a few.
So…let the 15th season of live racing at Canterbury Park begin.