by Jim Wells
The parking lot on the backside of Canterbury Park represented several corners of the United States Thursday morning.
There were pickup trucks, SUVs and automobiles bearing license plates from Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, Minnesota, Iowa, Florida, Arizona and New York. A black Chevrolet Avalance included an Arizona license plate with the word Jockey.
Although the racing office was nearly empty of horsemen, the parking lot was a good indication that the racing season is nigh.
The newspaper boxes that greet horsemen as they approach the main entrance to the racing office building delivered a mixed message, however.
The Minneapolis Tribune box presented a faded edition of a paper dated Sept. 3, 2009, situated as it is between current editions of newspapers in the boxes offering USA Today and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Two messages were presented immediately inside the entrance to the building. The first reminded horsemen that a chapel service was scheduled last Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. with a meal served afterward. It’s a good bet that any leftovers have since gone cold. There was also a message for anyone who might have liked a cigarette with coffee after dinner: “No Fumar En El Interior, Solo Afuera.”
For anyone unfamiliar with the Spanish language it stated simply, Take the cancer stick outside, buddy.
Six or seven individuals were taking a mid-morning repast of one kind or another in the track kitchen, while the personnel in the racing office went about their duties oblivious to the solitude that surrounded them.
Stall superintendent Mark Stancato, for one, was taking phone calls, assigning stalls, collecting fees from trainers and stable help for dorm rooms and other rentals while carrying on conversations with a variety of people.
There were no terrifically outdated newspapers near Stancato as was the case outside the office. There was a magazine with a recent story on trainer Carl Nafzger and a Daily Racing Form from Tuesday this week.
The most significant news came from Stancato himself. “The biggest news regarding new horseman,” he said, “are the new stables from Phoenix. Clay Brinson has 33 horses here, Dave Wolochuk has 20 and Miguel Silva has about 20.”
Silva, an assistant to Keith Bennett two years ago, is now on his own.
There will be one noticeably missing stable this spring. Todd Hoffrogge, who has been training at Canterbury since it first opened, has given up conditioning and racing horses. “He told me he couldn’t be happier,” Stancato said. “In fact, he said that was the reason he was smiling as much as he is.”
Stancato also reported that several regulars at Canterbury have increased their stables considerably. “Some of them have twice as many horses,” he said.
Among them are Wade and Red Rarick from Phoenix who had 18 to 22 horses between them a year ago and will stable 33 this spring. Brian Porter had 20 last spring and has 33 this year. Mike Biehler has doubled in size to about 50 horses. Bernell Rhone always has a large stable but is even bigger this year with 62 horses. Troy Bethke will have 45. Charlie Smith had around 16 horses in Shakopee last spring. He’ll have 26 this year.
“Those are the forever players here,” Stancato added, “and their stables are bigger than ever.”
Some other trainers familiar to fans are absent this year. In addition to Hoffrogge, Steve Erban, Bud Partridge, Joe Johnson and Carlos Pixley are not in Shakopee. Joe Johnson intends to return next year, according to Stancato. Canterbury doesn’t offer the races he needs for the barnful of good three-year-olds he has this spring.
There are some new names in the jockey colony, as well. The Shepherd family is represented by 19-year-old Dusty. His father, Dave, has ridden at Canterbury since it opened.
Dusty will be represented by agent Barb Noll.
Chuck Costanzo introduced a 16-year-old rider, Denny Velasquez. “He’ll ride his first race on opening day here,” Costanzo said, then offering a humble prediction. “He’s the next Mike Smith. This kid can ride.”
As for the head count in the stables, Stancato said that number went past 700 sometime Thursday. “There are 700-plus here now with another 6 to 700 to come,” he said.