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The New Deal Brings Optimism

Many horsemen are convinced that the deal between Canterbury Park and Mystic Lake announced this week will turn out better than the casino gaming chased for so long by Minnesota’s only racetrack for thoroughbreds and quarter horses.

The agreement will pump $75 million into Canterbury’s purse fund over the next 10 years, a deal with stability and certainty and attractive to trainers, owners and breeders throughout the state and elsewhere as they make their plans for the coming summers.

Tom Metzen, president of the local HBPA, likes the agreement for several reasons.

“The focus stays on racing,” he said. “The track has made racing their No. 1 priority. There is no relationship between horsemen and a track like the one we have here anyplace else in the country, not Churchill Downs not anyplace. ”

Mac Robertson, Canterbury Park’s Hall of Fame leading trainer for the past six seasons is among those enthused by the new agreement. He has had to ship many of his top horses in recent meets to his father, Hugh, at Arlington Park or to Delaware Park, to compete for more lucrative purses.

“I’ll be able to start bringing some of the better horses back here,” he said Friday. “I can bring some of my horses home.”

Call it the New Deal and it has changed dispositions, outlooks and future plans.


Hall of Fame breeder/owner Jeff Hilger is among those with renewed hope. “I had my place surveyed and was going to put it up for sale,” he said. Instead, Hilger was on his way to have a mare bred Friday, the fourth one in the last month, all accomplished while details of the agreement were still being negotiated. His wife, Deb, is already making plans to expand their farm.

The Hilgers aren’t alone.

“I heard trainers talking this morning about buying broodmares and foaling them out here,” said jockey Scott Stevens. “This is going to be a big boost to the whole industry.”

Stevens, like many others in the business, likes this agreement better than a racino. “I think it will be better,” he said. “Go to a track with a racino and it’s all about the slot machines and there aren’t many people watching the races. This should have an immediate impact on getting more horses here, from Chicago, Prairie Meadows or wherever. This is a very positive thing for racing.”

Horsemen Steve Erban is part of a syndication of the stallion Kela, the second place horse in the 2004 Breeders Cup Sprint. The horse stands at the Stillwater Veterinary Clinic and covered 30 mares this season. Erban expects that number to increase to” 40 or maybe 50” next season now that purses are destined to increase by 40 percent or more.

Trainer Francisco Bravo welcomed the agreement enthusiastically. “I think it’s phenomenal,” he said. “This shows tremendous leadership on (Canterbury CEO/president) Randy Sampson’s part.”

Bravo is more impressed with Sampson’s willingness to forge an agreement entirely on behalf of the horse industry. “It’s very unselfish of management to do a deal like this. How can anyone possibly question it. It has to be the first and only time it’s happened in the horse industry.”

Bravo, incidentally, made his statements en route to Canterbury from Oklahoma, hauling more horses to the Shakopee stables.

Trainer Percy Scherbenske has operated a farm near Farmington for years, shuttling horses between Shakopee and Chicago on a weekly basis to take advantage of purse situations. “Nothing has been happening at my farm for some time,” he said Friday night. “But that’s going to change now. This is even better I think than getting slots.”

Trainer Bernell Rhone likes the deal for similar reasons. He has been part of Canterbury since Day One and is among the top five trainers yearly. “This will help purses a lot and the industry here overall,” he said.

The Rhone family will benefit overall, as well. He, his wife, Cindy, daughter, Leann and son-in-law Dean Butler are a true family operation in Shakopee each summer.

Still, there are horsemen who would have preferred a racino with all it has to offer. One of them is Canterbury’s perennial quarter horse Hall of Fame champ Ed Ross Hardy.

“A racino would have been a home run,” he said, “but this is definitely a triple, at the very least a double,” he said. “It’s a positive thing.”

Robertson likes the agreement for a number of other reasons. “It’s nice to see the Sampson family get rewarded for all of their hard work. They’ve always been real racing friendly, a lot tracks suffering aren’t. I hope that continues.”

The real beneficiary will be the horse, according to Robertson.

“You can give them the time to heal or rest with better purses,” he explained. “You don’t have to push them.”

Better purses might simply be a tasty frosting on a cake that Robertson already likes. “I like the weather in Minnesota, the environment, the clean air, and racing surface,” he said. “I was at Saratoga the other day and personally I’d rather be here. I say that honestly.”

Thirty years ago Minnesota’s voters gave the go ahead to pari-mutuel wagering in the state and three years later, on June 26, 1985, the doors opened at Canterbury Downs to a celebration unseen before in state history.

Horse racing had arrived in the Land of 10,000 Lakes with a flourish and many of us ate up the clichés and swallowed the pitches thrown at us by the track’s publicity agents as if we were starving orphans. We relished every morsel.

The enthusiasm was unparalleled. Crowds of 20,000 were commonplace. Newcomers to the game with a few extra bucks sought out partnerships so they, too, could own a racehorse.

Breeders invested in new mares and built new stables. Trainers could find green but eager hands from the surrounding community to work the stables on the backside. The Minnesota horse industry had gotten a boost never before experienced. Breeders shipped their mares around the state, to Kentucky and other spots to produce foals for this exciting new market.

Then as quickly as it arrived it began to wane, stifled by the arrival of the state lottery, pull tabs and then casino gaming on the state’s Native American reservations.

It was never quite the same again… until this week.


Agent Richard Grunder paced nervously around the first floor of the grandstand before Friday’s sixth race.

Tanner Riggs, one of the two riders he represents at Canterbury Park, had won the first five races on the card and was in position to tie the record of six wins on a single card, accomplished by Derek Bell on June 14, 2002.

“He probably won’t do it, but he has a shot,” Grunder muttered as he paced about.

Then again, Larry Cascio of Omaha had similar thoughts before Friday’s third race. “Tanner had won the first two races,” he said, “so I thought no way is he going to win on my horse and then he wins on mine and on two more after that.”

Meanwhile, Riggs was getting a greeting from the grandstand that he had never before experienced. “They were all yelling and clapping for me. That’s never been done before, but (announcer) Paul Allen had them pretty pumped up.”

Riggs had mounts in the first six races on Friday’s card, but his last of the day, Satin Sweep, ran third.

Bell was being represented by Grunder at the time he won six races on a single Canterbury card, and the agent was hoping it would happen for his current rider, as well.

Riggs rode six winners on a single card in 2010 at Hawthorne Race Course. “You have to be lucky,” he said. “That’s part of it for sure. I’m no better than anyone else in this (jockeys’) room but things have to happen just so.”

Riggs referred to last week when he didn’t ride a single winner.

“I try to get a horse to relax for me and put them in a spot that gives them a chance,” he said. “I was doing that last week and horses were blowing past me anyway. I did that tonight and I was winning.”

Riggs’ winners in order Friday were: Lucky Straw, Grandpa George, Bourbon King, Restless Warrior and Gail’s Jewel.

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.

Photo Credit: Coady Photography