Great Grays

By Noah Joseph

In the colorful world of horse racing, there is one piece that really sticks out; gray horses. It’s amazing to see them, considering that only about 4 percent of horses born are gray. Over the years, gray horses have made their presence felt at Canterbury.

By far, the most famous gray to run at Canterbury was Hoist Her Flag. The daughter of Aferd, Hoist Her Flag was the terror of the track, beating almost all her female foes and running against the best of the males. She won 19 times in 49 starts in career that lasted five years and was twice named Horse of the Meet. She has a race named after her every year at Canterbury.

Hoist Her Flag

This year’s Hoist Her Flag Stakes winner drew a striking resemblance to the race’s namesake. Puntsville, a gray daughter of Cashel Rock, won the race in a style similar to Hoist Her Flag. She broke on top, held the lead, and won going away, with her gray tail swaying and waving like a flag of victory. The Hoist Her Flag Stakes was the ninth career victory for Puntsville, along with her second win this year, and her third career stakes victory.


The appropriately named Skatingonthinice was a horse who looked like ice. Just like ice, she left usually left her competition slipping while she slid to victory. Twice, she did in stakes. In 1990, she won the Minneapolis Handicap at Canterbury. She was also a successful broodmare.

Lastly, most gray horses usually inherit their gray coats as they age, but one filly was born with it. Sentimental Charm inherited her ghostly look by her father, Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm, and her mother River Cache, an unraced daughter of Unbridled. Sentimental Charm was a successful runner, finishing in the top three 15 times in 17 starts, winning seven stakes. As a broodmare, she produced three foals, all gray, but only one raced at Canterbury. That was her daughter Sentiment Gray, sired by Holy Bull, who was also gray.


Owner Dan Mjolsness with Hoist Her Flag

Festival Roots Run Deep

4080_MnFestivalOfChampions_REVISED_7.9Many 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.

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.