By Jim Wells
Some of the original horsemen were present, as was the first management team and the guys who built the place , too.
Canterbury Park _ nee Canterbury downs _ celebrated it’s 25th birthday, and many of the folks who helped kick off Minnesota racing a quarter century ago were present Saturday.
Stan Bowker, the track’s first general manager and vice president, stepped to the microphone after the third race; behind him, in the winner’s circle, was much of the team he opened the track with in 1985.
Bowker is confident even today that the crew who opened Canterbury 25 years ago could successfully operate just about any track in the country.
He said as much to Saturday’s small turnout, and second guessed himself later over lunch for not mentioning the “unbelievable job” done by Kraus-Anderson in constructing the state’s first racetrack in a mere 13 months time. “And they did that through a Minnesota winter,” he said.
Bowker walked the Canterbury backside when he arrived from Indiana on Friday for the next day’s celebration and marveled at how well the buildings have withstood the test of time.
He and Canterbury’s original director of marketing, Pat Dawson, were involved in a conversation after the third race as they made their way through the grandstand.
They recalled an incident late in the first season when management was discussing whether it was necessary to put glass in the clubhouse and turf club areas of the grandstand.
“We had had a mild, nice summer, very nice,” Bowker recalled. “We wondered if it was even necessary to glass-in that area; we thought about leaving it an open air area.”
Then, one afternoon, Mother Nature made an executive decision on behalf of Bowker.
A wet, windy afternoon dispelled any such notions Bowker and management had about an open-air facility after the table cloths started leaving their assigned spots, some of them even flying out the window.
Seated behind Bowker during lunch was Leland Seba, a racing steward at Canterbury from 1985 through 1995, with the exception, of course, the dark years. Seba spent 50 years in racing, the first 25 as a trainer and the remainder as a racing official.
He recalled an incident during the track’s early years, when the pick six was a hot commodity. On the day in question, there was a $100,000 carryover in the pick six, so it had the attention of just about everyone at the races that day.
With five of the six races in, the deciding race _ a mile and 70 yards as he recalled _ got off but was in trouble almost immediately when a jockey was unseated from his horse in front of the grandstand, while the rest of the field continued the race around the turn and into the backstretch.
“The para-medics radioed up to us right away that the rider had hurt his back and it seemed serious,” Seba recalled.
By that time the field had hit the top of the stretch. “There was that big carryover,” Seba said, “and the favorite had the lead at the top of the lane.”
The stewards decided at that point to stop the race and declare it no race because of the jockey’s precarious situation in front of the grandstand. The rider was still down on the track and the officials were concerned for his safety.
Minutes later some of the pressbox minions were banging on the stewards’ door, complaining about the decision to stop the race.
“We had to lock the door to keep them out,” Seba said. “They were yelling at us that we had no right to stop the race, that we couldn’t do it.”
Another visitor on Saturday was Tony Bentley, the original voice of Canterbury. Bentley was the track announcer in Shakopee from 1985 through the close of business (for two seasons) in 1992, with the exception of 1991 when he was at Calder Race Course.
Bentley was also the announcer for 27 years, the last in 2001, at the Fairgrounds in New Orleans. He sat in for the current voice, Paul Allen, on Saturday’s sixth race.
You will find him these days waiting on diners at Galatoires, a 105-year old restaurant in New Orleans which features French-Creole food.
The late Brooks Fields, the track’s founder and original president/CEO was represented by several members of his family in the winner’s circle.
“He was out here every day and absolutely loved it,” said Sarah Fields Nessan, Brooks’ daughter.
Public handicapper Kevin Gorg introduced the Fields family as the first family of racing in Minnesota.
“It brings back a flood of fantastic memories,” Nessan said.
A DOUBLE WINNER FOR THIS QH TRAINER
Moments before the start of the $15,000 Canterbury Park Quarter Horse Derby, the No. 8 horse, A Sweet Gamble, was scratched after flipping around in the gate.
A Sweet Gamble was the 5-2 favorite but it probably didn’t matter on this day. The winner was 30-1 longshot Time for Wilena, who won in :19.69, tying the track record for 400 yards under Nik Goodwin.
Trainer Brent Clay didn’t dally long in the winner’s circle because he had to saddle a horse for the following race, a 330-yard event.
He was on time and so was his horse, Six It Up, who was first at the wire under Thomas Wellington, giving Clay a trainer’s sweep of the quarter races.