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Live Racing 2009

By Jim Wells

There will be a different start and ending to the 2009 live racing season from those Canterbury Park fans have become accustomed to over the last several seasons.

The track typically opened on the first Saturday in May, to take advantage of the Kentucky Derby that day, and closed on Labor Day. Both days drew large crowds and big wagering handles. Kentucky Derby day annually was the largest or one of the largest days on the calendar, in attendance and wagering.

The 2009 meet will not follow those plans, however. The live meet will begin on May 15, a Friday and the eve of the Preakness Stakes, two weeks later than usual. The meet will conclude on Sunday, Aug. 30, eight days earlier than usual.

Nonetheless, the changes reduce the meet by only five days from 2008 and will enable the track to offer purses similar to those that averaged around $141,000 a day last season.
The meet will include familiar post times _ 7 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and 1:30 p.m. on weekends and holidays.

Declining revenues tied to the economy and increased competition made the changes necessary to avoid a purse reduction.

“We were going to have to cut days or purses,” said track president and CEO Randy Sampson. “The horsemen felt it was important not to reduce the purses so we went with that choice.”
Sampson said that eliminating Kentucky Derby day and Labor Day as live racing dates was a difficult decision on one hand. “Both have drawn some of our biggest crowds and wagering of the season. It will be hard not to have that,” he said.

On the other hand, opening on Kentucky Derby day created problems recruiting horses because many horsemen are still competing at other tracks.

“That’s why we ran two-day weeks for the first two weeks,” Sampson said. And that created salary and other economic snags for Canterbury since expenses for a short week were nearly the same as a full week but revenue was not.

Canterbury’s revenues for 2008 were down for two primary reasons, a declining national economy and increased competition with the opening of Running Aces Harness Park and its card club in the northern suburbs. A smoking ban that affects Canterbury but not Indian gaming casinos also had an impact on attendance.

“We experienced a 15 to 20 percent drop in the card club almost immediately when the card club opened there,” Sampson said. “The same wasn’t true of our simulcast figure, although the general economy caused problems there, too.”

Sampson said he was disappointed that the commission this week approved a 51-day live race meet for Running Aces that virtually coincides with the Canterbury meet. “They’ll open on the same day we do,” he said. “It would be better overall for the horse industry if racing days were spread out more, rather than piled on top of each other.”

Despite the lingering questions the depressed economy poses for all aspects of racing, Canterbury management will not wrestle with the problems facing many tracks around the country that are heavily leveraged.

“We don’t have any debt, so that really helps,” Sampson said. “We’re better prepared to weather the storm than many tracks are.”

Sampson has other reasons for expecting a good meet in 2009.
“We’ve got the Claiming Crown returning, which is always a good day for us. And I truly expect attendance to stay up there as well,” he said.

Recruiting horses is expected to be tougher next summer, the breeding industry is experiencing declines associated with the economy and owners are reducing the size of their stables, or at least not adding to them.”I’m still optimistic that we’ll have a meet very similar to last year’s, in handle and attendance,” Sampson said.