BY JIM WELLS
There were trailers backed up to certain stables on the backside at Canterbury Park Saturday morning, some of them awaiting their equine passengers, others simply being loaded with a variety of tack needed by a particular trainer for the next destination.
Throughout the last several days, a horseman could be found here or there bidding his farewells in anticipation of the next stop on an annual itinerary, or in some cases an entirely new destination.
Later Saturday afternoon, Orlando Mojica and a horse named Break In surged to the finish line in the 11th race on the card and the 69-day, 2016 race meet came to an official end.
Earlier, the various champions were cited, Mac Robertson as the leading trainer and Joe Novogratz as leading owner, but not until the final race on the card was a champion rider determined. That title went to Dean Butler by a single win over Alex Canchari. They both had mounts in the race, won by Break In.
There were two stakes races on this final day of racing. Hall of Fame rider Scott Stevens rode Storm Power to the winner’s circle in the $41,700 Tom Metzen HBPA Sprint Stakes, a race named for the long-time president of the Minnesota HBPA who died this summer.
Erick Cruz rode Even Thunder to a four-length win in the $75,000 Shakopee Juvenile Stakes.
Many horsemen consider the loss of Metzen to be greater than any they will ever endure on the racetrack, in a number of ways.
“Oh, we’re going to miss him. It’s already happening said former vice president Jack Walsh, elected this week to replace his long-time associate. “The first phone call I got or received was with him every day. I’m following him, filling in a void. Somebody has to, but he’s not replaceable. He was unique in a lot of ways.”
On the racetrack itself, it can be called the year that Big Mac Was Back, meaning Hall of Fame trainer Mac Robertson, of course. He dominated the trainer standings after losing that title the last two years to Robertino Diodoro.
Robertson had won nine consecutive trainer titles, starting in 2005, until Diodoro supplanted him in 2014 and again last year. Robertson was not only loaded for this meet, but for the first time in seven years spent the entire summer running the local stable, as opposed to shifting between Delaware Park or someplace else and Canterbury.
Clearly his presence throughout the meet was a huge factor this time around.
“I’ve been on the road for seven years,” Robertson said. “Obviously being at one place every day probably helped my horses. Being here every day probably helped the horses keep their form all meet. Maybe that wasn’t the case the last few years.”
Robertson had an insurmountable lead the last couple of weeks and he added to it on closing day. Nineteen wins in front, he saddled the winners of Saturday’s first four races to end the 2016 meet with a flourish.
“I think we run the best stable in the Midwest,” Robertson said. “For the most part, I’m pretty proud of the horses and the crew, a winning crew. We had some nice horses, obviously. You don’t win 60-some races without good horses.”
Robertson wasted no time putting his mark on this meet. He got off to a good start and remained optimistic throughout. “I thought if we had a good start that we’d have a good meet,” he said. “I knew what we were sitting on, although you still have to win. Our horses ran hard, wire to wire, for the most part.”
Diodoro won 49 races last year as opposed to 48 this time around, although his total earnings mark slipped by $90,000.
“Yeah, it’s been a good year,” he said, “although the last month or so we hit a brick wall. We used up a lot of our ammunition at Prairie Meadows. All year we’ve had 20 to 35 horses there.”
Nonetheless, Diodoro said he had his best year yet across the country and Canada. “Best year yet that way,” he said. “All year we had eight at Woodbine that would have been here and the bunch at Priarie Meadows we would have had here, so the barn wasn’t quite as loaded.”
Other trainers had summers matching last season in some respects and not in others.
Francisco Bravo finished as the third-leading trainer again. After winning 29 races in 2015 with earnings of $691,057, he wound up the current meet with 32 wins and earnings of around $825,000.
“We did well,” he said. “I won several stakes and that helped, and I had a few more horses here this year, too. Overall, I think it was good. There were disappointments from some of the horses, but the track was rough on them, too. I had a lot more horses shinbuck this year, around 40 percent of the three-year-olds. And we had some other problems, too. Still, we were lucky to have an excellent crew. To me that’s the backbone of any successful stable.”
Hall of Fame trainer Bernell Rhone, elected vice president of the local HBPA this week, is annually among the top trainers. Fourth last year, he finished in that spot again this meet with 28 winners, one more than last year.
His earnings dipped, however, by roughly $200,000. “I had more stakes wins last year,” he said. “This year we won claiming races.”
Yet, his memories of the summer will include some almosts and if onlys. “We were so close to winning a couple of stakes,” he said. “Bourbon County got beat a head in one stake. That’s a forty grand difference. A couple of those and….”
Rhone’s stable was also hurt by a couple of injuries to promising horses, and they had to be turned out early, although for the most part his barn stayed healthy.
“By the end of the season you’ll have some injuries. Even the good ones get sore and beat up, and aren’t performing the same,” he said.
Rhone agrees with Walsh on several points concerning the loss of Metzen, who ran the HBPA for two decades. “We’re going to feel that (loss) as horsemen,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize how much he really did do. Sometimes it was self-serving but he did a lot of good for all of us…legislatively, things we don’t see at the racetrack. And he had some foresight. He could see ahead and plan things. He was often close to being right on.”
Native Minnesotan Tony Rengstorf had an improved meet this summer. He was 10th in the standings last year with 16 wins and $429,240 total earnings. He had 28 wins this meet with total earnings of around $50,000 more, finishing fifth in the trainer standings.
“Not bad,” he said. “I’m for sure not complaining. Like anything else, as long as you’re consistent in life that’s usually good. No complaints there, we had a great year.”
Shortly before the gate opened for the final race of 2016, track announcer Paul Allen thanked a crowd of 8,219 for its support and gave a shout out to long-time TV production manager Jon Mikkelson, whose season-highlight video was showing on the infield television screen. At 6:08 p.m., a field of 12 maidens broke from the gate. Then, 1:39.74 later, Mojica and Break In hit the wire and the 2016 season was in the books.
Canterbury Park’s 2016 divisional champion:
Horse of the Year – Majestic Pride (owner: Hugh Robertson, Jeff Ryan, and Gary Chanen ; trainer: Mac Robertson )
Three-Year-Old Colt or Gelding – One Mean Man (owner: L.T.B. Inc. and Hillerich Racing LLC ; trainer: Bernard Flint)
Sprinter – Honey’s Sox Appeal (owner: Bob Lindgren : trainer: Mac Robertson )
Older Horse – Majestic Pride (owner: Hugh Robertson, Jeff Ryan, and Gary Chanen ; trainer: Mac Robertson)
Grass Horse – Majestic Pride (owner: Hugh Robertson, Jeff Ryan, and Gary Chanen ; trainer: Mac Robertson)
Three-Year-Old Filly – Honey’s Sox Appeal (owner: Bob Lindgren : trainer: Mac Robertson )
Older Filly or Mare – Secret Someone (owner: Mt. Brilliant Stable LLC; trainer: Michael Stidham)
Two-Year-Old -Line Judge (owner: Barry and Joni Butzow; trainer: Joe Sharp)
Claimer – True West (owner: Cheryl Sprick and Richard Bremer ; trainer: Karl Broberg)
Quarter Horse – Pyc Jess Bite Mydust (owner: Lunderborg LLC; trainer: Jason Olmstead )