Canterbury Park, Shakopee, Minn logo

Festival of Champions 2012: Sunny Days Ahead

It’s been twenty years since an unforgettable dark cloud hung over Canterbury Downs, a black funnel positioned to wipe out an entire industry and its primary place of business as well.

Despite the hovering threat and very long odds of survival, horsemen saw a ray of hope. Nearly everyone expected a shutdown of this still fledgling industry. Not many could live with the thought. Horsemen banded together and put on the first Festival of Champions, as a tribute to Minnesota’s horse owners and breeeders and as a defiant gesture to the Ladbroke Racing Corp, the track owner intent on curtailing live racing. Horsemen wanted to prove the company wrong and most of them left that day convinced they had demonstrated their point – racing, presented and advertised properly, was still attractive.

“They had thrown in the towel on promoting racing or doing much to make it successful and we were trying to demonstrate that there was still interest in racing here,” said Randy Sampson, who became the track’s president and CEO when it reopened.

The first Festival drew a turnout just short of 11,000 people and was successful by almost any calculation. It was all the evidence Minnesota’s horsemen needed to continue a fight that would result in renewed racing three years later.

Nonetheless, the future appeared dim despite the success of that first Festival two decades ago. “It was kind of a last showcase for Minnesota horses,” owner/breeder Dan Mjolsness would say years later.

There were winners and losers as on any race day, and Canterbury Hall of Fame rider Scott Stevens represented both sides. He, too, was encouraged by what had just transpired but skeptical nonetheless about racing’s immediate future. “It was a good day and a sad day,” he recalled. “We pretty much knew it was over.”

Stevens had mixed feelings of a more personal nature as well. He won four races on that first Festival card, but not the two he treasured and expected most. He left Shakopee afterward to take up residence in Phoenix, not knowing if his future included Canterbury Downs any longer.

“There was a great crowd and they did a great job (producing the Festival),” he said. “It was hard to believe it was over.”

It wasn’t, as we now know, and horsemen have much to celebrate as they present the 2012 Festival of Champions today.

The marketing agreement with Mystic Lake Casino, for one, will add significant purse money to the Festival card, on which Stevens has seven mounts. It promises stability for the next decade and has horsemen in a frame of mind not witnessed locally since the advent of racing in 1985. Stevens has a chance perhaps to shine as he did on the inaugural Festival running in 1992.

But, first, for the nostalgic and Minnesota racing history buffs, here is a recap of his successful afternoon in that memorable, first Festival of Champions:

He won three of the first four races, including the card opener, the Minnesota Turf Festival Sprint, a 7 1/2 furlong event with a $5,000 purse. Stevens won that race for Skywood Farm and trainer Casey Hannum on a horse named Request The Flag.

He won the third race, worth $7,500 as well, for the Stillwater Sally Partnership and trainer Bill Bethke on Stillwater Sally. ”She’s probably the mother of some of these horses here now,” he said. “And Bill’s the outrider.”

The highlight of the afternoon for Stevens, though, was the ($50,000) Northern Lights Debutante win aboard Bold Sharokee, trained by Mike Biehler, the training champion that year, and owned by Paul Sampson. The horse was special to Stevens for a number of reasons.

He was the only jockey who had ridden the filly, and was on her two races earlier when she won the Graduation Stakes against the boys at Assiniboia Downs.

He spent the previous winter in Minnesota breaking babies for Biehler. One of those babies was Bold Sharokee. “It was really cold,” he recalled, “and I got on her in the snow. The Sampsons had some very well-bred horses, but I kept telling them that she would be the best of them all.”

She won the Debutante that afternoon, finished the season 5-for-5 and was voted Canterbury Downs’ Horse of the Year.

Stevens was certain he was on a winner heading into the $40,000 Fillies and Mares Championship Classic, a future Hall of Fame horse named Northbound Pride, but Belle of the Night and Donna Barton got there first, just ahead of him.

In the next race, the $50,000 Minnesota Classic Championship, Stevens rode Blair’s Cove, a future Hall of Famer, too, and was convinced he was named on the winner. Barton and Timeless Prince had other thoughts once again and finished first, in front of Imagine the Thrill, owned by Chet and Gerry Herringer and trained by Percy Scherbenske. Blair’s Cove was third.

“That was disappointing,” Stevens recalled. “I won those other races but I really expected to win those two.”

Stevens was not done for the day, though. The final race in Canterbury Downs history was the mile and 7/8 $10,000 Turf Marathon, and Stevens rode Mark of Strength, owned by Sharon and Gordon Bredeson, to victory in track record time, which stands yet today.

The event was televised locally and Stevens had his VCR set for the occasion. He didn’t watch the races, though, until he got to Phoenix, where he has competed each winter since.

He will return to the Valley of Sun again when this meet concludes on Monday, but with different thoughts and frame of mind than he did 20 years ago.

The 2012 Festival of Racing is a tribute to Minnesota horsemen and their horses, but it is a toast to the future, too.

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.