It felt strange, Randy Sampson said, to close down the Canterbury Park card club on a bustling Thursday night. Though the track president knew that would have to happen if the state government shut down, it still seemed surreal.
Sampson stayed until 2 a.m. -- two hours after Canterbury was closed, along with the government -- and sat forlornly in the emptying room, accepting words of support from disappointed patrons. His mood didn't improve Friday, when Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin did not issue a ruling on Canterbury's request to remain open. Her decision could come Saturday, but the shutdown already has forced the track to cancel racing Friday and Saturday, with the rest of the busy Fourth of July weekend hanging in the balance.
The track went dark at 11:30 p.m. Thursday, after a robust crowd of 8,585 turned out for 12 races on a sweltering evening. The only light came from a video screen in the infield, glowing with the words few thought they would see: "Due to the government shutdown, Canterbury Park is temporarily closed."
"It's depressing, but we'll continue on,'' Sampson said. "It seems like the end of the world now, but we'll get through it. We're anxious to hear a ruling so we can make some decisions on our plans going forward.''
Attorney Cort Holten spoke on behalf of Canterbury and its horsemen at Friday's hearing in Ramsey County District Court. He argued that the track should be allowed to stay open, because the government agency that regulates racing is fully funded by Canterbury and its horsemen. They already have paid for the Minnesota Racing Commission's services through July, but the track cannot operate during the shutdown.
Once the ruling is issued, Sampson said, he will decide whether racing will be cancelled Sunday and Monday. The track's fireworks show, scheduled for Sunday, and its free hot dogs and wiener-dog races on the Fourth of July traditionally draw thousands of people to Canterbury Park. Losing the weekend would be a huge blow, with potentially more damage to come; Sampson estimated that the shutdown could cost the track more than $1 million per week in lost revenue.
The usual high spirits of a Thursday night at Canterbury were tempered by irritation over the shutdown. Many employees of the track and its card club fretted about the temporary, open-ended furlough from their jobs, with some moved to tears by the stress and uncertainty. Bettors expressed anger and frustration, along with gestures of support for the track.
Char Besser, who tends a popular bar on the grandstand's second floor, said patrons stuffed her tip jar more generously than usual because they were concerned about her loss of income during the shutdown -- and because she provided a sympathetic ear for their rants. "People are really ticked off," she said. "All night long, they were saying it's time to clean house. They're ticked off that the government didn't do their jobs."
Horsemen struggled to come to grips with the fact that the shutdown was really happening. Some said it wouldn't sink in until they found themselves idle Friday night, when they should have been saddling their horses for a nine-race card. Others still had not lost hope, predicting the shutdown would be brief.
Kelvin Childers, past president of the Minnesota Quarter Horse Racing Association, watched Thursday's program end with two quarter horse stakes races. They were scheduled for this weekend but were moved ahead in anticipation of a shutdown. He said Canterbury's closure would be particularly tough on quarter horse trainers and owners, because at this time there are few other tracks offering races for their breed.
"Nobody can believe it,'' Childers said. "Even though they moved our two stakes races to Thursday, everyone expected that the weekend was still going to go on. We all just hope the shutdown doesn't last long.''
Canterbury has taken entries for all races scheduled through Monday, and Sampson said the number of horses being entered had not decreased, despite the uncertainty. The track would be able to resume racing within 24 hours of getting clearance to do so.
If the ruling from Gearin is not favorable, Sampson said, the track and horsemen will appeal. In the meantime, he is taking heart in the comments offered by people who reluctantly left the track Thursday night.
"They were saying, 'We're with you. We can't wait to get back,'" he said. "They're angry at the politicians, but they're very supportive of us."