Hay, Oats and Water by Sheila Williams

Brooks Fields (1919-2008)

Mr. Fields,
I am writing to thank you for our racetrack Canterbury Park, created by you as Canterbury Downs.

I remember driving down a black-top road and seeing acres of bright, sweeping corn fields. Seemingly, right in the middle of this field, stood a magnificent structure with several towers.
It was your field of dreams. And mine.

I remember opening day. Some friends invited us for a racing morning brunch. Only years later, did I create the rule…nobody eats until we hit our first winner.

First floor and the mezzanine were packed with people–we were stacked like crayons in a colorful box. The line to the ladies room extended out to the paddock.

I thought it was a great idea to expand the facility the second year. We just didn’t realize that scorched and toppled Arlington Park would be restored into a Marble Midwest Marvel. We didn’t expect Interstate 35 would be dotted with additional racetracks from Iowa, Oklahoma to Texas.

We didn’t see that the junk bond world of the 1980s–made our beautiful racetrack a house of cards.

And we sure didn’t see that the Shakopee Mdewaketon Dakota people would be selling more than cartons of cigarettes without the taxes.

What we saw was a sport more American than baseball. Thomas Jefferson kept a stable of racing horses at the White House.

Bad decisions, back room deals, financial disaster. All hit Canterbury Downs.
I remember sitting in the press box on the first day the handle dipped below $1 million.
Jim Dunleavy, the Daily Racing Form Track Man, binoculars around his neck, threw open the door of his little office, and said; “That’s it. It’s all over.”

The Minneapolis Star Tribune and the local television stations–who on opening day–tripped over themselves creating sparkling stories and spreads–my God, they even trotted out the “What to wear to Canterbury Downs” special section.

Now they treated you as the Charles Keating of Minnesota Racing.

I remember you going to the Legislature asking the state to reduce the pari-mutuel take-out; it was an effort to reduce a tax that no other business in Minnesota even paid.
The Star Tribune polled the good people of Minnesota, asking the question, “Do you approve or disapprove giving aid to Canterbury Downs?”

What?

That Sunday, front page, top of the fold….”70 percent of Minnesotans oppose giving aid to Canterbury Downs”.

Years later, I interviewed you. We sat under the oaks among your hostas and lilies at your Edina home. Of all the people who really were responsible for the short, unhappy life of a Minnesota racetrack, you were only hurt and perplexed by the words of the Star Tribune.

Mr. Fields, you will always be remembered as the man who brought racing to Minnesota. Those who made it their mission to see you fail are still or retired from their banks, their brokerage houses, their insurance companies, and their real estate firms.

But thanks to the Sampson family, and the people who grow the hay and oats, who raise the foals, who wash the laundry on the backside at 4 a.m., who watch from the trainer’s stand as the simmering, Minnesota sun bounces off their charges dappled butts, those who breath racing every day of their lives–we are still here too.

We are the custodians of your Field of Dreams.

Sheila Williams

(editor’s note: Shelia’s column, Hay, Oats and Water, will appear here on a regular basis. Sheila has a unique perspective on racing and Canterbury’s history. She worked as a reporter in the Down’s days and ran the media relations department throughout the mid 90s after the track was purchased by the Sampsons and Dale Schenian. I can look around this press box, from the announcer’s booth to the equibase office, and see people who would not be here if it were not for her early influence. We are a better place thanks to her. jm )

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