Many of the same people have been part of this from the start and still celebrate this annual toast to the Minnesota thoroughbred and quarter horse, an idea spawned when international corporate interests were intent on changing the shape of horse racing in Minnesota.
The Minnesota Festival of Champions is an afternoon devoted exclusively to horses bred in the Gopher state by Minnesotans who’ve invested their time, money and energy into the continued improvement of an industry once destined for oblivion by outside business interests.
The Festival highlights a day on which Minnesota breeders and owners annually parade forth the best occupants of their barns to take a shot at prize money set aside exclusively for them and their kind – the Minnesota thoroughbred and quarter horse.
It is old history now that the first of these annual affairs began in 1992 as a response to the corporate intentions of the Ladbroke Racing Corp., then owners of Canterbury Downs, to shut down live racing in Minnesota.
It is old history that Minnesotans were laughed at when they suggested staging the first Festival on their own and that the results of 1992 convinced many of them to stay involved in the industry.
Their names fill the record books and the historic accounts of the 1992 Festival of Champions:
Thanks were extended to the numerous sponsors of the event in the racing program that day from the presiding board of directors: Gordon Bredeson, Allen Burdick, James Druck, Joe Friedberg, Gerry Herringer, Kathy Kissoon, Phillip Maas, Randall Sampson and Dale Schenian. Co-directors of the event were Steve Erban and Dan Mjolsness.
The very first winner was a 2-year-old colt by Aferd from Time Requested. His name was Request the Flag and he was ridden that afternoon by Canterbury Park Hall of Fame rider Scott Stevens, who rode four winners on the card. Owned by Bob Kessler of Skywood Farm and trained by Casey Hannum, Request the Flag won the Turf Sprint at 7 and 1/2 furlongs.
The next trip to the winner’s circle was taken by Northern Injun, a 2-year-old colt by North Pole from Indian Jennie, owned by John and Murray Valene, trained by Richie Scherer and ridden by Roger Gomez. The event? The Northern Lights Futurity, offering an estimated purse of $50,000. Gomez had another winner in the Sprint Classic at six furlongs, Silver Me Timbers, owned by Jan Chumas and trained by Mike Duschane.
Stevens’ next winner had unmistakable connections to what became the future of the racetrack and racing in Minnesota. “That’s the one I remember best,” he said.”Bold Sharokee.”
And why not! Bold Sharokee, owned by Paul Sampson, whose family would take control of the racetrack, and trained by Mike Biehler, won the $50,000 Northern Lights Debutante. “That horse was a home-grown,” Stevens recalled.”I had gone to Canada and won on her right before that. We broke her right there (at Malkersons). They had babies from Kentucky there, too, and I kept saying that this Minnesota-bred was the best one of the bunch.”
Good enough in 1992 to be Canterbury’s Horse of the Year.
So, the horses names go in the record books, and their owners, trainers and riders continue what they do, in many cases no different today than in 1992. In some cases quite different.
“Dale Schenian and Randy Sampson were horse owners back then,” Stevens added.”Now they own the racetrack.”
Along with numerous other investors whose names were part of that 1992 delegation determined to keep racing alive in Minnesota.
The Festival record book makes note of them:
Art and Gretchen Eaton are still breeding and racing and lead all owners in number of Festival wins with 10. Curtis Sampson, without whom Canterbury might be tumbleweed and memory, is right behind with eight wins, followed by Kissoon Thoroughbreds (7) and Almar Farm (6). Schenian is there, too, tied with Cam Casby and Anthony Didier with four wins apiece.
Hall of Fame quarter horse owners Bob and Julie Petersen lead their category with eight winners. Cam and Sylvia Casby are next with five, and then James Murray with four. Doug Hoseck and Rodney Van Ohlen have three apiece.
For the record, the other winners in the inaugural Festival were Belle of the Night, who defeated future Canterbury Park Hall of Fame horse Northbound Pride in the Distaff Classic. Belle of the Night was owned by Joseph Sand, ridden by Donna Barton and trained by Todd Hoffrogge. Canterbury Park Hall of Fame runner Timeless Prince, running for Lester Partners, ridden by Barton and trained by Joey Ruhsam, won the $40,000 Championship Classic, defeating fellow Hall of Fame runner Blair’s Cove.
The leading Festival rider of all time is Derek Bell who has 24 wins. He is sidelined by injuries and will not add to that total this year. Next is Stevens with nine wins and five chances to increase his total this time.
Stevens’ other winners on that grand afternoon in 1992 included Mark of Strength, owned by Sharon and Gordy Bredeson. A 2-1 morning line selection, Mark of Strength was the winner of the Turf Marathon, run at 1 7/8 miles. Stevens was also aboard Stillwater Sally in the Turf Route for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles, a horse owned by Marnee Grefe and trained by Bill Bethke.
John Alderman’s A Bit of a Gent won the 400-yard North Star Derby. Jim Olson’s Mor Mors Joy won the $40,000 Stallion Breeders Futurity. Shane Pollard was in the saddle on both.
Those were the names of the first winners on a list added to each summer since 1992, a list that will get additional names once again today.
This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.