Sunday's Festival of Champions Evokes Memories of 1992.

Festival of Champions


Turn back the pages of your calendar, day by day, week by week, month by month until you come to a gorgeous autumn afternoon in 1992. There it is, right there, September 12.

Okay, now, pause right here. The sun is shining, a television crew is at Canterbury Downs. A crowd is making its way into grandstand, a large crowd at that. There are smiles on the faces of horsemen_ in the paddock, everywhere you care to look.

Minnesota’s horsemen, reeling under the heavy hand of the Ladbroke Racing Corp., and its plans to limit if not entirely curtail live racing at Canterbury, are staging the first Minnesota Festival of Champions, a card designed to showcase state-bred horses and demonstrate to the track’s operators that Minnesotans would indeed support racing if it were promoted and presented correctly.

Here and there, the faces of Ladbroke’s management team reveal disgust for what is taking place. Their faces and moods seem to sour each time another group of patrons passes through the turnstiles. Success on this particular day merely presents another element to a narrative contrary to their own. Making matters even worse is that KMSP TV is televising the event, spreading the word.

Now, fast forward to the fourth race, the Northern Lights Debutante Stakes, a 6 ½ furlong sprint with a $50,000 estimated purse, which includes $25,000 from the Minnesota breeders fund. There are 11 horses in the program, including two couplings. Be The Magic and Meggie May are the 1 and 1A entrants at 15/1, both owned by Bette and Dale Schenian and trained by Cliff Darnell.

There is also L’Etoile Jolie and Bold Sharokee, the first owned by Curtis Sampson , the second by Paul Sampson. Both are trained by Mike Biehler. They are coupled as 2 and 2B and are the morning line favorite at 6/5…because of Bold Sharokee, unbeaten at 4-0 and the speediest 2-year-old filly on the grounds.

Scott Stevens, a Hall of Fame rider at Canterbury, has the mount and knows this filly well. He has been on her back for all four wins, one of them in the Graduation Stakes at Assiniboia Downs. He also helped break her the previous winter, telling everyone who would listen that she was the best of the bunch.

“They all laughed at me,” he recalled. “But she was a real professional even that young. That’s what made the difference. She was very quick, very professional and didn’t make mistakes.”

The Sampson family bred their own horses at the time, but Paul bought this one at the Minnesota Bred Select Yearling Sale, for $3,000, a dark bay filly, almost black, a daughter of Best of Both, by J.O. Tobin.

Sampson recalled his reasoning at the time of purchase. “We were looking for a filly bred for speed to run as a two-year-old,” he said. “The dam for this one was Sharokee, a Key to the Kingdown mare. Bold Sharokee was an early baby, foaled on January 28 of 1990, another asset.”

Sampson digs through old memorabilia to spark his recollections of that special day. There are yellow sticky notes still hanging tenuously to some of the items, resurrecting a memory here or there of a bittersweet afternoon. “”We didn’t know if there would be racing again after that day or not,” he said. “But it was such a successful day that it gave everyone hope.”

Sampson recalls the race as he sorts through clippings and memorabilia. “I remember Scott got her out of the gate quickly and over to the rail,” he said. “He was so good with those young fillies.”

Bold Sharokee made it five consecutive wins that day. “She was born earlier than a lot of the others and that was a factor, too,” said Sampson. She was ahead of the others in development, physical and mental.

More memories:

Scott Schindler rode Be the Magic. Canterbury Hall of Fame rider Luis Quinonez was on Meggie May. Donna Barton, now the articulate reporter on horseback for most of the top races in the U.S., was on Fortunate Faith (5/2), owned by Penny Lewis Whitney and trained by Joey Ruhsam. Vic Padilla saddled a hore named Paige Me First (20/1) and Mike Duschane saddled Victor’s Prize (5/1) for Berkshire Farms, Inc., and Irish Moment (9/2) for Richard Bremer and Cheryl Sprick. Vicki Warhol rode Victor’s Prize and Roger Gomez was on Irish Moment.

As it turned out, the Minnesota Racing Commission did not renew Ladbroke’s racing license in December because the company would not make a firm commitment to live racing. Canterbury Downs went dark for the next two years.

Yet, there are those who credit the success of that inaugural Festival of Champions with the revival of racing in 1995.

“If it hadn’t been for that festival, who would have been willing to come back and take the risk?” Sampson said.

More than 150 people from Hector and the surrounding community, the Sampsons’ home town, turned out that day to see Bold Sharokee run . As winners of a race that afternoon, Paul and his brother, Randy, the current CEO/President of the track, were invited to a buffet in the clubhouse. “I don’t know if I was in the place four or five times previously,” Paul recalled. “We were like strangers up there and felt fortunate and honored to be there.”

As it was, her victory that day was the last of the truly shining moments in the career of Bold Sharokee.

Sampson flew into Omaha in the spring of 1993 to see her race and called ahead to Fonner Park from an airport pay phone to discover that the races had been cancelled.

“She didn’t win a race in 1993 or 1994,” he said. “There was nothing really wrong with her. As we looked back, it seemed clear that she was an extremely fast two-year-old born at the end of January. The rest of her age group just caught up with her.”

Then, with the Shakopee racetrack reopened in 1995 under the direction of the Sampson family, Bold Sharokee reappeared in a mile race on the grass. Once again, Stevens was in the irons. “She looked brilliant,” Sampson said. “It was clear she belonged on the grass and we were just finding that out.” Alas, two weeks later Bold Sharokee cracked a leg kicking the back of her stall and never raced again.

Yet, she was one of the shining stars on September 12, 1992, when the first Festival of Champions convinced horsemen throughout the state that there was indeed a place for their sport in Minnesota.

Festival of Champions 2012: Sunny Days Ahead

It’s been twenty years since an unforgettable dark cloud hung over Canterbury Downs, a black funnel positioned to wipe out an entire industry and its primary place of business as well.

Despite the hovering threat and very long odds of survival, horsemen saw a ray of hope. Nearly everyone expected a shutdown of this still fledgling industry. Not many could live with the thought. Horsemen banded together and put on the first Festival of Champions, as a tribute to Minnesota’s horse owners and breeeders and as a defiant gesture to the Ladbroke Racing Corp, the track owner intent on curtailing live racing. Horsemen wanted to prove the company wrong and most of them left that day convinced they had demonstrated their point – racing, presented and advertised properly, was still attractive.

“They had thrown in the towel on promoting racing or doing much to make it successful and we were trying to demonstrate that there was still interest in racing here,” said Randy Sampson, who became the track’s president and CEO when it reopened.

The first Festival drew a turnout just short of 11,000 people and was successful by almost any calculation. It was all the evidence Minnesota’s horsemen needed to continue a fight that would result in renewed racing three years later.

Nonetheless, the future appeared dim despite the success of that first Festival two decades ago. “It was kind of a last showcase for Minnesota horses,” owner/breeder Dan Mjolsness would say years later.

There were winners and losers as on any race day, and Canterbury Hall of Fame rider Scott Stevens represented both sides. He, too, was encouraged by what had just transpired but skeptical nonetheless about racing’s immediate future. “It was a good day and a sad day,” he recalled. “We pretty much knew it was over.”

Stevens had mixed feelings of a more personal nature as well. He won four races on that first Festival card, but not the two he treasured and expected most. He left Shakopee afterward to take up residence in Phoenix, not knowing if his future included Canterbury Downs any longer.

“There was a great crowd and they did a great job (producing the Festival),” he said. “It was hard to believe it was over.”

It wasn’t, as we now know, and horsemen have much to celebrate as they present the 2012 Festival of Champions today.

The marketing agreement with Mystic Lake Casino, for one, will add significant purse money to the Festival card, on which Stevens has seven mounts. It promises stability for the next decade and has horsemen in a frame of mind not witnessed locally since the advent of racing in 1985. Stevens has a chance perhaps to shine as he did on the inaugural Festival running in 1992.

But, first, for the nostalgic and Minnesota racing history buffs, here is a recap of his successful afternoon in that memorable, first Festival of Champions:

He won three of the first four races, including the card opener, the Minnesota Turf Festival Sprint, a 7 1/2 furlong event with a $5,000 purse. Stevens won that race for Skywood Farm and trainer Casey Hannum on a horse named Request The Flag.

He won the third race, worth $7,500 as well, for the Stillwater Sally Partnership and trainer Bill Bethke on Stillwater Sally. ”She’s probably the mother of some of these horses here now,” he said. “And Bill’s the outrider.”

The highlight of the afternoon for Stevens, though, was the ($50,000) Northern Lights Debutante win aboard Bold Sharokee, trained by Mike Biehler, the training champion that year, and owned by Paul Sampson. The horse was special to Stevens for a number of reasons.

He was the only jockey who had ridden the filly, and was on her two races earlier when she won the Graduation Stakes against the boys at Assiniboia Downs.

He spent the previous winter in Minnesota breaking babies for Biehler. One of those babies was Bold Sharokee. “It was really cold,” he recalled, “and I got on her in the snow. The Sampsons had some very well-bred horses, but I kept telling them that she would be the best of them all.”

She won the Debutante that afternoon, finished the season 5-for-5 and was voted Canterbury Downs’ Horse of the Year.

Stevens was certain he was on a winner heading into the $40,000 Fillies and Mares Championship Classic, a future Hall of Fame horse named Northbound Pride, but Belle of the Night and Donna Barton got there first, just ahead of him.

In the next race, the $50,000 Minnesota Classic Championship, Stevens rode Blair’s Cove, a future Hall of Famer, too, and was convinced he was named on the winner. Barton and Timeless Prince had other thoughts once again and finished first, in front of Imagine the Thrill, owned by Chet and Gerry Herringer and trained by Percy Scherbenske. Blair’s Cove was third.

“That was disappointing,” Stevens recalled. “I won those other races but I really expected to win those two.”

Stevens was not done for the day, though. The final race in Canterbury Downs history was the mile and 7/8 $10,000 Turf Marathon, and Stevens rode Mark of Strength, owned by Sharon and Gordon Bredeson, to victory in track record time, which stands yet today.

The event was televised locally and Stevens had his VCR set for the occasion. He didn’t watch the races, though, until he got to Phoenix, where he has competed each winter since.

He will return to the Valley of Sun again when this meet concludes on Monday, but with different thoughts and frame of mind than he did 20 years ago.

The 2012 Festival of Racing is a tribute to Minnesota horsemen and their horses, but it is a toast to the future, too.

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.