Once the calendar turned to April, Ken Brown figured the spring he was enjoying in Maryland would be arriving in Minnesota. The daffodils and cherry blossoms already were blooming when he left his home on March 31, heading to Canterbury Park to resume his job as track superintendent.
“Last year was my first year at Canterbury, and I got here on April 1,” Brown said. “The weather was beautiful.”
Brown could laugh about his failed assumption earlier this week, when the winter that would not let go finally loosened its grip — just in time for the racing season to begin Friday. A frigid, snowy April left Canterbury’s caretakers scrambling to get the Shakopee track ready for a 70-day meet, and it slowed the training for horses that spent the winter here.
A few days before Canterbury was scheduled to open for training, Brown spent 15 hours removing snow from the track after a fierce mid-April blizzard. Andrew Vold, who manages the stable area, was worrying about frozen water pipes and turning on dormitory heaters that are rarely used in the spring. It took four days to dig out the barns.
Spring finally showed up this week, leaving little evidence of the 39 inches of snow that fell at Canterbury in March and April. Sharp-eyed railbirds on opening weekend, though, might notice at least one reminder of the fitful change of seasons.
“The horses that have been in Tampa and Texas and Oklahoma are nice and sleek,” said Russ Rhone, who operates a training center near Chaska. “Ours look like wooly mammoths. It’s been so cold they still have that long winter hair.”
Could have been worse
In 2017, Canterbury Park returned to its past practice of starting its season on the first weekend of May, to coincide with the Kentucky Derby and give a boost to attendance and wagering. That two-week difference carries some risk, as this year proved.
Thursday, there was still a pile of snow near the tote board, left over from January’s snowmobile races. Gardeners had to rush to plant the flower displays, and Brown’s crew got a late start on adding several tons of cushioning material to the dirt course.
“We got it done through perseverance and luck,” Brown said. “But without Mother Nature helping, you’re just stuck.”
Canterbury planned to open its main track for training on April 18. That was delayed by a week, after the mid-month blizzard buried it under 16 inches of snow. Vold said it was fortunate that no horses were on the grounds yet — trainers held up their shipments after seeing weather reports — because the snow was too deep for trailers or feed trucks to get to the barns.
The drifts that clogged the stables and blocked the dormitory entrances were cleared just in time for the first horses to arrive later that week. Even then, Vold turned on the water only in the barns that were occupied, fearful the lingering cold would burst pipes.
“It was a shock to the system,” Vold said. “That Monday after the storm, the snow was drifted so high I couldn’t get into my office. I thought, ‘This is going to be a long week, just moving this snow so we can get horses in here.’ ”
Brown faced a huge task, too, getting all that snow off of Canterbury’s two tracks without damaging the surface. A native of Canada, he was undaunted; he hitched a giant snowblower to a tractor and drove backward at 1 mile per hour, over and over. The training track opened April 23 and the main track two days later.
One for the ages
Even before the blizzard, Brown said, the persistent cold left 10 percent of the track covered in ice that was as thick as 12 inches. The low temperatures and late snow also created challenges for Rhone as he tried to get about 28 horses in shape for the season.
At his training facility, he has a track made of straw to give horses a cushioned surface when the dirt track is frozen. But the weather took a toll on the straw track, too, forcing him to move to an indoor arena. Horses don’t get as strenuous of a workout in that smaller space, so Rhone and his crew were riding seven days a week to get them fit.
The weather kept Rhone off of his half-mile dirt oval until April 24, his latest start there in 28 years. Some horses’ training is off by 30 to 45 days.
“After that last 15 inches of snow, it took four or five hours to shovel out the walking machine so we could cool them out [after workouts],” Rhone said. “And the indoor arena isn’t heated, so the riders could get on three or four horses, then they had to take a break to warm up.
“Some of the horses aren’t going to be as fit as they’ve been in previous years. It’s been an uphill climb.”
Though most of the snow is gone, the work required to clear it meant other preseason maintenance jobs were put off, and Vold said the staff is just catching up. Andrew Offerman, Canterbury’s senior director of racing operations, said it could be a challenge to fill races in the early weeks as the horses that wintered in Minnesota are still getting fit enough to race.
Like other epic Minnesota winters, though, this one will give the local racing community a story to tell.
“We’ll always be able to say, ‘Remember the start of the 2018 racing season, when we got the 16 inches of snow?’ ” Vold said. “It was kind of stressful, but it all worked out well.’’