By Noah Joseph
While much of the state is swept up in the excitement of the Minnesota State Fair, horse racing will have a different kind of get-together. This Sunday is the 25th Minnesota Festival of Champions at Canterbury Park, a day when all races are restricted to Minnesota bred horses including eight stakes races, for both thoroughbred and quarter horses. These days the Festival of Champions is a happy time, but its origins however, aren’t so joyful.
In the early 90s, racing in Minnesota was struggling mightily. Attendance had dropped, wagering had decreased, purses had fallen, and fewer horses were being bred in Minnesota. In 1990, Ladbroke, a British company, purchased Canterbury Downs with the hopes of making Canterbury better, but the efforts ended up being futile and in fact made things worse, and Canterbury struggled even more. In 1992 many feared that the track would close, but if it did, the horsemen had a grand finale planned. A day featuring the best Minnesota bred horses racing on a single card would close the show. On September 12th, 1992, the inaugural Minnesota Festival of Champions was held. A crowd of nearly 11,000 people showed up that Saturday, and many more watched on TV, as it was locally televised. The first stakes race of the day was the Northern Lights Futurity, which was won by Northern Injun, who was owned by Valene Farms, trained by Richie Scherer, and ridden by Roger Gomez. Jockey Scott Stevens, who would years later be enshrined in Canterbury’s Hall of Fame, then won the Northern Lights Debutante on Bold Sharokee for trainer Michael Biehler. Stevens was one of four jockeys to win at least two stakes wins on the card. The other jockeys were Donna Barton, Roger Gomez, and Shane Pollard. Pollard won the two quarter horse stakes. Stevens also made history by winning the final race in Canterbury Downs history, a one mile and 7/8ths turf race on Mark of Strength. With that, Canterbury closed.
When Canterbury reopened for live racing in 1995 under new ownership and management, the Festival of Champions returned after being held at Arlington Park for two years. En route to becoming a regular event of the season, and one of the most popular days of the year, the Festival of Champions has featured some of the best Minnesota bred horses of all time such as Bleu Victoriate, Now Playing, Careless Navigator, Bella Notte, and Chick Fight. Modern stars to win on Festival Day include Hold for More, Pinup Girl, Firstmate, and Mr. Jagermeister. Horses that won Festival of Champions races and then went on to the Canterbury Hall of Fame include Timeless Prince, Crocrock, Wally’s Choice, Glitter Star and Heliskier.
While the Minnesota Festival of Champions is now an event of happy times, never forget that it marked the end of an era, but like the Phoenix, it rose from the ashes in a bigger and better form, and left a lasting legacy in the history of racing in Minnesota.