Canterbury Park, Shakopee, Minn logo

Festival A Memory Maker


Songs and poetry have used the term ad nauseum, sometimes incorporating it into titles or lyrics: “Memories” are made of this, a trip down “memory” lane.

It might be put to better use in the identification of the annual celebration of Minnesota horses. How about this: Festival of Champions, a Memory Maker.

Gretchen Eaton can support the idea not only with the way she speaks of the annual event, but with her tears, as well. Simply recalling some of the horses, their retirements or deaths, can create a lump in her throat. Not to mention the thought of her late husband, Art, who was at her side for the births of Festival  winners they raced themselves or sold to someone who did.

“The Festival was always our favorite day of the year, better than Christmas,” she said. And then a tearful thought. “It’s like watching your kids in a school play.”

The Eatons are still the leading thoroughbred owners on Minnesota Festival day with ten winners, one more than Curtis Sampson and three in front of Kissoon Thoroughbreds. Although no longer racing, Gretchen still cares for retired race horses, as she and Art always did, and not just her own.

” Ashar is here now (at her farm), a winner of $265,000. We didn’t raise her. She was in a partnership with the Kissoons, Pat O’Groman and Lori Clugg. They retired her here.”

So many others:

” Dot’s Moment, Rickey’s Turn, It’s Truly Obvious. They are all gone now,” she added.

Memories ? Many of them.

”The friendships especially,” she said.  “Bernell Rhone was our first trainer. We’re still friends. The Goebels, amazing people. The Metzens.  Jan and Connie Chumas bought our first Silver Ghost Horse, Silver Me Timbers, who put us on the map as breeders.”

When it comes to the Festival, naturally, there is no way to leave out the name of one Eaton horse in particular: Bella Notte.

She won the Distaff Sprint three consecutive times, and the race now bears her name, leaving some indelible memories.

“Just the honor of having a race named after Bella,” Gretchen said.

There is one Festival that stands out from the others, Gretchen’s birthday in 2010. Bella Notte won the Distaff Sprint that day and Suddenly Silver the Classic.

“That was very special,” she said. “But it’s the people, too. The riders, the people who work on the backside. Everyone.”

Gretchen recalled one incident in particular, involving Scott Stevens. “He and Derek (Bell) were always good riders for us. Scott was amazing.” Stevens pulled up one of the Eatons’ horses on the far turn. “When we asked him why, he told us that the horse felt funny. We thanked him.”

Then there is Suddenly Silver’s win in 2010, and the call of the race by Paul Allen.   “I always remember it,” she said:  “He’s covering more ground than Lewis and Clark.”