His face is emblazoned on the wall in a larger than life photo as you enter the press box, now named in his memory. The photo is from the early days of Canterbury Downs and he is dressed to fit a specific role, that of racetrack regular, man about town, high roller, someone riding life on the edge.
The right hand is raised in a fist, the other hand sunk deep into the pocket of his trousers anchored to a trim lean body by suspenders that flank the perfectly chosen tie, with an unbuttoned sport coat supporting an intense look of support for – what else could it have been – his horse.
From appearances, the picture might have been taken in a studio, captured for the ages in the instant after a photographer said ‘say cheese’ or, also likely, taken moments after the man noticed a camera pointed his way. It is hard to tell what’s real and what is not.
After all, the man in question here is Dark Star.
Also known as George Chapple.
Handicapper, sports expert, a bon vivant full of bons mots.
On Saturday, Canterbury Park will feature the $50,000 Dark Star Cup, a 6 and 1/2 furlong sprint for three-year-olds and older. During its five previous runnings, from 1985 through 1989, this race was known as the Chaucer Cup, a nod to literary royalty that was part of the glorious presentation that attended those heady first years of Minnesota racing.
George ‘Dark Star’ Chapple was part of it. It is possible he was present for each of the Chaucer Cup’s five runnings. Even if he wasn’t, he was.
His hijinks and practical jokes are the stuff of press box legend at Canterbury. People occasionally found the dinner missing that only moments before they placed on the table in front of them. A desk drawer might be left open purposely where a person would clearly run into it, inflicting intense pain to an upper thigh. Notes of a dubious nature might be left beneath the windshield wipers of a press box regular. On one occasion a young press box intern mistakenly seated herself upon the copy machine only to have her bottom half photographed for widespread distribution.
Such is the stuff of press box legend. But the Dark Man’s lasting legacy to racing was his nonstop support of the sport in whatever capacity he worked. The Dark Man might know absolutely nothing about a given subject, but could sell it nonetheless. Racing he sold, every chance he got: As a handicapper at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, as a WCCO radio host or as a guy at the races, at Canterbury Downs and then Park, living the role.
Dark Star was born George Chapple on April 20, 1946. He joined a pantheon of great race horses on June 1, 2012, among them “Dark Star,” the upset winner of the 1953 Kentucky Derby.
It is said that every racetrack has its special characters. Dark Star was one of Canterbury’s.
It is probably no coincidence that the Chaucer Cup, now the Dark Star Cup, produced some dandies.
In 1985, a horse name Taylor’s Special, trained by Bill Mott, owned by William Lukas and ridden by Pat Day,won the inaugural running of the race. Lukas was Canterbury’s leading owner that inaugural summer. Who was he? The retired president and CEO of Brown-Borman Distiller, located in Louisville, Ky., of course.
The next summer, Forkintheroad secured a place as one of Canterbury’s early stars by winning the second running of the race. Trained by the legendary Jack Van Berg, owned by Minnesota Gordon Molitor and ridden by Jerry Bailey, Forkintheroad nosed out Aggies Best at 12-1 and was later named Canterbury’s Horse of the Year.
Don’s Irish Melody won the first of two consecutive Chaucer Cups in 1987, defeating Superroyale by 3/4 of a length.
The 1988 race (video below) was one of the best in track history after a thrilling stretch run, with the Melody pushing his nose in front of Who Doctor Who at the wire. The final time of 1:14 was only 1/5 second off the world record for the distance at the time. Don’s Irish Melody, the pace-setter, ran the first six furlongs in that race in 1:07 flat, nearly an entire second faster than the current six-furlong track record.
The 1989 Chaucer Cup had its own special touch. Reduced from $150,000 to $75,000 after a dramatic purse cut that summer, the race was nonetheless among the best in track history after Split Rock at 27-1 shifted gears in the final 150 yards and caught Orphan Kist in a dead heat.
Trailing by 14 lengths on the backstretch, by 8 1/2 at the half-mile pole and by five at the quarter pole, Split Rock had the grandstand in a tizzy. Two lengths back was Hoist Her Flag, Canterbury’s only two-time Horse of the Year.
The real winner that day was Dark Star, who had the daily double, the triple and the pick six in addition to the exacta on the Chaucer Cup.
Or maybe not.
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.