By JIM WELLS
The temperature at 9 p.m. Friday was 64 degrees. The American flag behind the tote board at Canterbury Park hung limply, responding occasionally to a whisper of breeze. Humidity was a very comfortable 50 percent, a welcome reversal of 100 percent readings that accompanied a Seattle-like atmosphere the past couple of weeks.
Under these ideal conditions, the track began a summer-long 25th anniversary celebration of pari-mutuel racing’s debut in Minnesota.
At 7 p.m. there was plenty of room to socialize on the grandstand apron. Thirty minutes later a GPS was required to reach the winner’s circle after some races.
Twenty-five years ago Brooks Fields, then the president/CEO of Canterbury Downs, had a standard expression for Friday’s kind of good fortune.
“We were kissed by an angel,” recalled Randy Sampson, now the president/CEO of Canterbury Park.
The track will offer free admission throughout the summer as part of its marketing plan for the anniversary, which began under the most auspicious of circumstances on Friday.
Journeyman jockey Scott Stevens, who won three consecutive riding titles at Canterbury Downs starting in 1990, won the first race of the meet, for $5,000 claimers, on a six-year-old gelding, Arena Negra.
Who better than Stevens to get a historical season off and running.
“It’s always important to get off to a good start the first week,” Stevens said. “It takes the pressure off. Now…it’s all up hill from here.”
A $7,500 claimer, Sam Green, won the second race under Ry Eilkeberry, fresh off a commanding winter at Turf Paradise in Phoenix where his 150-plus wins were about 30 better than the rider who finished second.
“It’s good to get a win right away,” said Eikleberry, who was mentored in Phoenix a couple of years ago by Stevens. “Yeah, the old boss,” said Eilkeberry.
So, teacher and student claimed the first two races of an historic season. “It turned out just right,” Eilkeberry added.
Friday’s crowd sent the winner of the third race, Crypto Edition, off at 9-2, a real puzzle for three reasons. The horse was ridden by Derek Bell and trained by Mac Robertson, who have dominated the winner’s circle at Canterbury the last several seasons. Now add in the fact that this maiden was bred and owned by Bleu Valley Farm (Jeff and Debora Hilger) and the puzzle becomes even more confounding.
A donkey with those kind of connections shouldn’t be 9-2, it was suggested to Bell.
“What… this horse paid $11,! he responded.
Jeff Hilger later explained the story behind this four-year-old son of Cryptoclearance who had just broken his maiden.
“He’s a route horse. I’m really surprised to see him win at 5 ½ furlongs,” he said. “He’ll run big at a mile or mile and 1/8.”
But still a maiden at four?
“He shin-bucked last year,” Hilger said. “And I don’t run horses from this mare (Timeless Edition) at two. They are simply too big and need time.”
Stay tuned on this one.
Bell was back in the winner’s circle in race four on a Minnesota-bred maiden, Jost Van Dyke, trained by Robertson and owned by Barry and Joni Butzow. Jost Van Dyke left eight rivals wondering where he’d gone, winning by the length of a football field.
Dean Butler, Canterbury’s reigning riding champ, got his first win of the new season in the sixth aboard Regal Jo, a four-year-old fill running against $10,000 claimers.
Butler made it two in a row, riding Hidden Gold to an allowance win at 5 ½ furlongs.
Bell wound up the evening with this third win on the card, riding Alex’s Tomcat against $5,000 claimers at 5 ½ furlongs.