BY JIM WELLS
There was the distinct possibility earlier this week that the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby would be celebrated locally without two time-honored accompaniments to the historic race.Mint juleps and wide-brimmed hats appeared out.Hot rums and shapkas seemed more likely.The Derby is the simulcast highlight of today’s first live racing card of 2008. Morning workouts were scheduled three hours later than usual this week because of the unseasonable cold and soggy grounds that greeted horsemen in the Canterbury stables. Riders stretched stocking caps over their helmets. Trainers and stable-hands pulled the hoods on their sweatshirts over their heads to ward off the chill. Some turned to earmuffs.Welcome to Derby week _ Minnesota style.Trainer Justin Evans is a native Arizonan and is just up from Turf Paradise and the Phoenix desert. On Tuesday morning, he was bundled up like an Eskimo as he chatted with a couple of Minnesotans in his barn. “I suppose if it gets to 50 degrees that will seem like a heat spell to you here,” he said.Ah, but we Minnesotans know that this time of year it can snow one day in our beloved land and we’re sweltering the next.We might even be enjoying a balmy afternoon as we await the call to the post in Louisville today. Our meteorological fortunetellers have been calling all week for a halfway decent day in the 50s after the possibility of morning snow showers. We now know if they hit a bull’s-eye, just missed or were wide of the entire target as another season of horse racing begins at Canterbury Park under the Sampson family stewardship.Generally, the format for the Sampsons’ 14th season is a carbon of last year’s, with a couple of exceptions. Today is the first of 67 days of racing that will wind up on Labor Day. Saturday first post returns to 1:30 p.m. after last year’s experiment with a 4 p.m. start. The Claiming Crown, at Ellis Park last season, returns to Shakopee on Aug. 2. The season will get under way with purses similar to 2006, the last time the Claiming Crown was run in Shakopee. Daily purses averaged around $152,000 that year. The calendar includes the Minnesota Festival of Champions and the very successful July 3 card and fireworks display. Two long-time staples on the annual calendar, the Frances Genter Stakes and the Victor Myers Jr., Stakes, have been scratched from this year’s schedule to help the racing department meet new $50,000 minimums on black type races, a $5,000 increase. The races are on hold, not discontinued. “We intend to reintroduce those races at some point,” said Eric Halstrom, vice president of racing operations.Randy Sampson, the track’s president and general manager, has been prepping himself for the 14th time, and it could just as well be 1995 all over. “I’m just as pumped as ever, just as excited about the horses and jockeys coming in and live races starting. That’s what gets my blood pumping,” Sampson said.New stables, several from Phoenix, will present new wagering challenges for patrons and increase the promise of a competitive meet. Jamie Ness is fresh off a phenomenal meet and his second training title at Tampa Bay Downs. Mac Robertson returns with a full barn and will chase a fourth straight title. Keith Bennett just won the training title at Turf Paradise and is here for the first time.Bernell Rhone, Doug Oliver and Percy Scherbenske have had stables here for every meet since 1985. Mike Biehler and Troy Bethke are Minnesota natives who return. Everyone in that group, except Scherbenske, has won at least one Canterbury training title.”Rhone, Evans, Robertson and Ness will have 54 stalls apiece, the max,” said stall superintendent Mark Stancato. “It should be an exciting meet. Ness has had a phenomenal time in Florida. Bennett is here for the first time. They have to chase Robertson, but it should be fun.”The jockey colony will be solid, too.If defending champ Derek Bell can turn in a repeat of last season, he will become the first rider in track history to win six riding titles. He finished three wins in front of 2006 champ Paul Nolan, who would like to turn the tables and win a second title in 2008. Journeyman rider Scott Stevens, a three-time champ at Canterbury, returns in pursuit of a milestone _ 4,000 wins.Patrons will find some improvements in the grandstand this season. There are 180 wagering machines in the grandstand. Eighty-five have been replaced with new state-of-the-art of machines, assuring faster moving lines. “We have the good stuff,” said Halstrom. “These are second generation machines. All the bugs have been worked out.”Halstrom says the new machines are easier to read and operate and will speed up the wagering process. “There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “These machines will help keep lines moving quicker.”The improvement includes self-service as well as teller-operated machines, which can be flipped over and converted to self-service when not in use by tellers.The projection-style televisions on the first and second levels of the grandstand have been replaced with flat-screen plasma or LCD screens. On the third level, an upgrade has begun in the table-seating area. Flat screen televisions have replaced the old monitors along the top row of tables. That project will continue in the months to come.In the meantime, Sampson wants to get the live season under way. Rain or shine today’s the day, and avid racing fans won’t let a bit of Minnesota chill get in the way. Even a seasonal transplant like Stancato, who heads for Mexico after Christmas each year, is prepared and looking forward to the new season.”I got these in New York last December,” Stancato said, presenting a pair of earmuffs. “They were selling them on every street corner for five bucks.”Stancato doesn’t think he’ll need them today. He’s already gotten his money’s worth.