Given the state of the horse racing industry, Randy Sampson knows he shouldn’t complain. Canterbury Park ended its 69-day racing season Saturday with a 7 percent increase in live racing handle, a number he said would be cause for celebration at most tracks.
But Canterbury pursued higher ambitions this season, leaving Sampson, the track’s president, a little disappointed in the final numbers. The Shakopee track lowered its takeout — the amount of money it keeps from each wager — in the hope that bigger payoffs to horseplayers would stimulate major gains in out-of-state handle. An increase of 10.5 percent wasn’t enough to make up for Canterbury’s smaller cut from each bet, and Sampson said revenue from live racing handle will be significantly lower than in 2015.
A season bedeviled by rainy weather and smaller than expected fields ended under a sunny sky Saturday, with a crowd announced at 8,219 and total live handle of $742,962. The summer’s bright spots included a single-day attendance record of 21,453 on July 3 and two other July dates that landed among the 10 largest announced crowds in track history.
Dean Butler edged Alex Canchari in a tight race for the jockey title, and purses rose to a Canterbury Park-record $208,713 per day.
“The attendance and handle give the perception that we had a pretty good meet,’’ Sampson said. “We held our own. But with the takeout reduction, we set the bar quite a bit higher this year.
“We knew going in that (the reduction) was a significant risk. I’m surprised; we wouldn’t have gone forward with this if we weren’t very optimistic that horseplayers would spend more money. Now, we have to regroup, but I still think we can grow the handle.’’
Canterbury officials gambled that reducing takeout by 3.5 percent would spur a 30 to 40 percent increase in out-of-state handle and a 5 percent rise in on-track handle. If wagering had increased by that amount, it would have more than made up for the smaller amount the track kept from each bet. Horseplayers’ organizations have been calling for tracks to reduce their takeout, and Canterbury received lots of publicity for its move.
But the serious handicappers Canterbury was targeting did not respond. Sampson bristled at the suggestion of some players that the quality of Canterbury’s meet had slipped, but he acknowledged that smaller fields and the high success rate of favorites — particularly in the early part of the season — made it less attractive to bettors. The rainy weather also had an effect, with many races run on a sloppy main track or pulled off the turf.
Though the takeout reduction didn’t work, track officials will analyze its failure in the offseason and seek other ways to boost wagering.
“Part of our goal has to be making our business more self-sufficient, and increasing the out-of-state handle is our best opportunity,’’ Sampson said. “Lone Star (Park in Texas) has lower purses than ours, and purses at Remington (Park in Oklahoma) are the same as ours, but they have higher out-of-state handle than we do.
“We’ve gone from $300,000 to $500,000. Now how do we get to $1 million? I think that’s achievable.’’
To do so, Canterbury must increase another number: its horse population. Vice president of racing Eric Halstrom said that may prove to be even trickier, with fierce competition among tracks for a declining number of thoroughbreds.
Even with a steady rise in purses, Canterbury’s barns housed about 1,500 horses at the meet’s peak, slightly fewer than last year. Field size for thoroughbred races averaged 7.68 horses per race, compared to 8.00 in 2015. The number of horses starting in North American races has dropped sharply over the past decade, from 74,206 in 2004 to 53,365 in 2015.
Though Canterbury’s solid purse structure and stability work in its favor, Halstrom said that isn’t enough. Some high-quality stables did not return this season because they couldn’t find enough local workers. Canterbury’s relatively remote location and a shortage of rental housing in Shakopee also make it tougher to recruit horsemen.
“That’s the biggest issue we face, having enough horses to put on the meet we want,’’ said Halstrom, who hopes some of this year’s best new trainers — including Joe Sharp and Karl Broberg — will return with larger stables next summer. “We’re going to have to fight to get horses up here. And it’s getting harder and harder every year.’’
While attendance continues to decline at most tracks, Canterbury’s large crowds generate enough admission and concession revenue to keep the track financially healthy. Sampson said that model is sustainable through the remaining six years of Canterbury’s 10-year, $75 million purse enhancement agreement with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.
A new state law authorizing advance deposit wagering also will benefit the track’s purse fund. Beginning in November, Canterbury will get a cut of online wagers placed by Minnesota residents; state government officials estimate that could generate $1.5 million per year.
But handle is the lifeblood of the industry, and Sampson is determined to solve the riddle of how to maximize it.
“We’re not giving up,’’ he said. “I think we’re putting a real good product out there. We have to keep looking for ways to get the handle up.’’