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Opening Night Elicits Excitement

Opening DayThe planets are back in the proper orbits, circling the heavens in their celestial splendor. The stock market will take off like a rocket in the coming days. Peace has come to this little corner of the world. Just like that, horse racing is back on the Minnesota sports and entertainment calendar.

Under gray, wet, chilly skies (and intermittent winners for the fortunate), the 2013 race meet commenced on Friday night, initiating a season full of optimism and wonder.

The first full season under the business agreement with the Mdewakanton Sioux Community and Mystic Lake has attracted more horses – some curious trainers, too – than Canterbury Park has seen in years, perhaps dating to its first life in the 1980s when stables from Kentucky, California, Nebraska, Illinois and, you name it, arrived to test the new venue to horse racing.

In some ways, Canterbury Park is new once more, due to the agreement with its old rivals three miles down the road, announced last June 4. There is a new atmosphere at a track that opened in 1985. Funny how money can do all that, $12 million in total purse money for the meet to be exact.

Patrons, a mere 6,478, got their first look at the new, $1.5 million high-definition tote board with its tribute to Mystic Lake. “It’s gorgeous,” said trainer Bernell Rhone. Likewise with a $100,000 addition to the saddling paddock, a large video screen delivering tidbits of information from track announcer Paul Allen among numerous other things.

Opening night was chilly and wet, more like a duck opener, and certainly those conditions reduced the turnout, but not enthusiasm. Certainly not from trainer Gary Scherer, jockey Juan Rivera, a horse named Polar Plunge and its owner, Cam Casby, one of Canterbury Park’s newest members of the Hall of Fame.

If the turnout was reduced by the inclement weather, fields for the nine-race card were not. A field of 12 lined up for the feature race, the $50,000-guaranteed Lady Slipper Stakes, a six-furlong dash for fillies and mares.

As it turned out the horse to beat was indeed the horse to beat and nobody could do it. Polar Plunge, the 3/2 favorite, clearly enjoyed her long layoff. Friday’s race was her first since she won the Minnesota Distaff Sprint last Sept. 2.

There were moments when winning rider Juan Rivera wondered, however. Polar drew even with Happy Hour Honey at the top of the lane and appeared ready to glide home easily. Trouble was, she didn’t want to get on with it. “She pinned her ears back and kind of sat there,” Rivera said. “I thought ‘what the heck.’ ”

So, Rivera reminded his mare that there was business yet to do and Polar Plunge responded, hitting the wire ¾ length in front of Happy Hour Honey and Dean Butler who was three lengths in front of the next horse, Hidden Gold and Derek Bell.

Scherer exited the winner’s circle quickly, acknowledging the win with a quick perfunctory remark about how Polar Plunge benefitted from the layoff. He was a man on a mission at the time, with a horse to saddle in the next race.

He was back in the winner’s circle after that race as well, with Second Street City, owned by Al and Bill Ulwelling and ridden by Denny Velasquez.

The card got under way with a four-year-old gelding, Band of Silence, winning the first race of the meet under Eddie Martin, Jr., from the very competitive barn of Midwest Thoroughbreds.

Martin rode in Shakopee two years ago and is back for this meet, clearly attracted by the new purse standard. The same with Ry Eilkleberry, a former quarter horse riding champ at Canterbury, who was not in Shakopee last summer but returned and rode his first winner of the meet in the second race, Yodelin’ Angel.

Lori Keith, who has first call in the Mike Biehler barn this meet, brought in the winner of the third race, Marathon Moon out of the James Bends barn. A 6-1 outsider, Marathon Moon surprised even Keith, who had never laid eyes on the horse before the race but was confident of one thing afterward. “He certainly liked the mud, didn’t he,” she said.

Yes, Lori, a whole lot better than the rest of us.

Hilgers Find the Winner’s Circle on Opening Night

Jeff & Deb Hilger, owners of Bleu Valley Farm, also found the winners circle on Friday night with three-year-old Bleu Moon Magic in the night’s fourth race, a state-bred allowance race. The Hilgers, one of the state’s most prominent breeders, were featured on WCCO last night discussing the impact of the Cooperative Marketing Agreement with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.

Jeff & Deb Hilger Story

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.