There is a seat in the middle of the pressbox sofa that was his for the past dozen years. A small, white lettered sign on the oval coffee table immediately in front has reserved the spot for him all that time. The table also was host to a smorgasbord of barbecued ribs, prime rib, baked potatoes, pizza or various other dishes, often several at a single time, on days he attended the races.
Pizza boxes, half finished dinners, boxes of sugar coated cereals. They could all be found on the table at one time or another. Upon seeing a banquet laid out in front of him one time, a visitor to the pressbox wondered if anyone else was coming to Thanksgiving Dinner.
The sign, incidentally, said simply, Reserved: Dark Star.
Although the seat, last used on Saturday, might go be unoccupied for days at time, it seemed emptier than usual Friday night.
The mere knowledge that he will not sit there again created a somber atmosphere in the press box he has been part of since the doors opened at Canterbury Downs in 1985.
Dark Star, a voice for Canterbury and Minnesota racing, died Friday at the age of 66.
His name was George Chapple but from his first days as a handicapper for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, he went by the name Dark Star, chosen after the upset winner of the 1953 Kentucky Derby.
From that day forward, anyone who met the man was certain of one thing: They would probably never meet another like him. George Chapple, Dark Star, the Dark Man, Star – he answered to all them – was one of a kind.
“You don’t find characters like him anymore, not in this button down, social media world,” said track announcer Paul Allen, who worked closely with Dark on any number of projects at Canterbury.
A member of Canterbury’s Hall of Fame, Dark Star had a show for several years at WCCO and was a long-time host of the Canterbury Report. He greeted Allen with a typical Dark Star approach upon meeting the new track announcer in 1995.
“Hey California kid. Keep your distance,” Dark told him. “We do things differently here. Welcome aboard.”
Canterbury President & CEO Randy Sampson described Dark as a man who would go out of his way for a friend. “He was always willing to help,” Sampson said.
Yet, Dark’s real legacy was to racing and its spot in the Minnesota sports pantheon.
“Nobody in Minnesota did more to promote or expose racing in this state than Dark,” Sampson said.
“That was his legacy. That was his gift.”
He was colorful, zany, unpredictable and often entertaining.
Andrew Offerman, the social media director in the pressbox, recalled an incident in 2006 when he and Dark Star were assigned to the Trent Tucker celebrity poker tournament at the track.
Offerman was to serve as a greeter at the door. Star was assigned to interview celebrities. Star took the pressbox apprentice under his wing, directing him to his favorite spot for a tuxedo rental.
When the tuxedos arrived on the night of the tournament, Star’s was missing a cinch. “He spent the entire evening with his left hand in his pocket to hold up his pants, while he shook hands with people,” Offerman said. “He interviewed Michael Jordan with his left hand in his pocket.”
Kevin Gorg, Canterbury’s long-time paddock analyst, would forewarn friends about the Dark Man. “You can believe about five percent of what he says, but he’ll keep you entertained for hours on end,” Gorg said.
He was practical joker in the early days of the track, often hiding a handicapper’s dinner plate or sandwich when he turned his back. On one occasion, a disliked colleague announced that he didn’t want to know the winner of the Indianapolis 500 that day. He was filming it for viewing that night. There was a piece of paper underneath a windshield wiper on his car after the races. Yup, it included the name of the Indy 500 winner.
He was a promoter, a talker, a salesman.
“He could jump off a building and talk the concrete below into letting him live,” said track analyst Angela Hermann, who teamed with Dark to win a meet-long press box handicapping contest last year.
“It came down to the final race of the season,” Hermann recalled. “We won by a length.”
Hermann and Dark teamed up to win a pick four via simulcast at Hollywood Park last weekend. Dark would fund many of their enterprises. Hermann would do the handicapping.
Dark loved the horses but he was a lousy handicapper. He talked his way into a handicapping job at the Pioneer Press in the 1980s, claiming he once handicapped for the Los Angeles Times, even though no one there recalled him.
From the basement of the grandstand to the pressbox at the top, Dark Star was a topic of conversation on Friday.
Jockey Derek Bell looked up on his way to the paddock before the third race Friday and said simply:
“This really sucks,” he said.
Jesse Overton, the chairman of the Minnesota Racing Commission, was standing in the paddock and broached the subject.
“It was so sad to hear about Dark Star,” he said. “He really tried to help this place.”
One tweet sized up the Dark Man this way on Friday:
“Wherever he is right now, he’s probably looking for a Racing Form.”
And maybe a pizza to go with it.
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.