During the Minnesota winter, when Canterbury Park’s empty barns are blanketed with snow, Mark Stancato works his sales pitch. The stall superintendent for the Shakopee track visits with horse trainers around the country, trying to persuade them to spend the summer racing at Canterbury.
Declining purses had made it harder and harder for Stancato to close the deal in recent years. But last winter, he needed to say only one thing: Canterbury had signed a deal with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community that would infuse $75 million into its purse fund over 10 years. “We have 25 new stables coming, and some of them we didn’t even recruit,’’ said Stancato, who has managed Canterbury’s barns for most of the track’s 27-year history. “The money did the recruiting for us.’’
As Canterbury prepared to open a 69-day racing season Friday, Stancato wrestled with an entirely different problem — how to find room for everyone who wants to be part of it. He received 2,500 applications for 1,500 stalls and expects all to be filled for the first time. Many returning trainers have expanded their stables, and several owners have bought higher-quality horses. There are some powerful new stables, including 30 horses owned by Midwest Thoroughbreds, the nation’s leading owner for the past two years.
The deal with the tribe that runs Mystic Lake Casino will add $5.3 million to this season’s purses, inflating them to about $190,000 per day — twice the level paid in 2011 and close to the amount offered at top Midwest tracks such as Chicago’s Arlington Park and Iowa’s Prairie Meadows. The tribe also is paying Canterbury $600,000 this year for marketing. That money has helped fund a new $1.5 million digital tote board and a giant video screen near the paddock.
The additional purse money will allow Canterbury to run its longest meet since 2006. According to president Randy Sampson, it also is allowing the track — and Minnesota’s horsemen — to plan for the future for the first time in years.
“It’s a game-changer,’’ Sampson said. “After so many years of uncertainty, people are really excited.’’
That includes people such as Dean and Teresa Benson. As Canterbury’s low purses caused people to get out of the racing business, Teresa Benson said her family was thinking of converting some of its 40-acre horse operation to farmland or development. This spring, 23 foals were born at their Wood-Mere farm near Webster — three times as many as in 2012 — and trainers who can’t get enough stalls at Canterbury have inquired about keeping horses there.
“We haven’t seen that for years,’’ Benson said. “People go where the money is. There hasn’t been this much excitement in a long time.’’
As other tracks around the country increased their purses via revenue from slot machines, Canterbury’s purses did not keep pace. Funded by wagering on live and simulcast horse racing, as well as a portion of revenue from its card club, the track’s purses had declined from $149,767 per day in 2006 to $114,319 per day in 2011.
Low purses and a short racing season made it challenging for horsemen to simply break even. As many trainers chose to run elsewhere, many breeders also cut back or got out of the business. Last year, only 96 thoroughbred foals were born in Minnesota, declining for the seventh consecutive year to an all-time low.
The agreement with the Shakopee Mdewakanton tribe had an immediate impact. After it was signed June 4 — just a few weeks into the 2012 racing season — an infusion of $2.7 million boosted purses by 35 percent. Total purses this season will be about $12 million, compared to $6 million in 2011.
Word of the unique deal spread through the national racing community. Stancato was so overwhelmed by requests for barn space that he had to give several trainers fewer stalls than they wanted, and Canterbury’s stable area opened a week early to accommodate demand.
Bernell Rhone was given 54 stalls, the maximum allowed, and still had to send some of his horses to the nearby training center run by his brother Russ. Rhone has raced at Canterbury since it opened in 1985, despite diminishing purses that made it hard to earn a living. He kept coming back for two reasons: He liked the track, and his Minnesota clients wanted to see their horses run, even if they couldn’t earn enough purse money to cover their costs.
This year’s expanded season means more opportunities to race, and purses for all but the lowest levels of competition have increased by as much as $10,000 per race. Purses now are high enough for owners to actually turn a profit with a good horse, which encouraged some of Rhone’s clients to invest in better-quality stock.
“Instead of buying a cheap horse for $5,000, some people are spending $16,000 or $20,000 or $25,000 on a horse,’’ said Rhone, who also has some new clients lured by the purse increase. “Before, they were just hoping to have fun and break even. With the purses now, you can pay for a $25,000 horse and try to make some money. That has people a lot more excited.’’
The competition, however, will be sharper. The new stables include Robertino Diodoro, a trainer whose 43 victories at tracks in California and Canada rank 23rd in North America, and Midwest Thoroughbreds, which has become one of the most successful racing operations in the country.
Midwest, which has 250 horses in training at six tracks, leads the nation again this year with 136 victories and is second in earnings with $2.3 million. General Manager Jim Miller said he always has liked Canterbury’s lively atmosphere, its track surfaces and its management, but racing there wasn’t financially viable until now.
“With a stable as large as ours, the purses are the main attraction,’’ Miller said of Midwest, which has won more than 1,000 races and nearly $19 million in purses since 2011. “With the [tribal] deal in place for an extended period of time, we’re going to race at Canterbury for an extended period of time.’’
Sampson said the increase in the number and quality of horses will help stimulate wagering both on- and off-track. Average handle increased last year to its highest level since 2008, with a sharp uptick in wagers placed on Canterbury’s races at out-of-state locations. The track also will host six stakes races with purses of $100,000 or more — the most since 1995 — including the $200,000 Mystic Lake Derby, the largest purse offered at Canterbury since the $250,000 St. Paul Derby in 1991.
The long-term financial windfall has boosted the sagging breeding industry as well. In 2012, there were 163 thoroughbred broodmares registered in Minnesota, by far the smallest number since records began in 1985. This year, 289 broodmares have been registered, and 170 foals have been born in the state, reversing a trend that endangered Canterbury’s ability to run races for Minnesota-bred horses.
That has changed the plans of people such as the Bensons and Rhone, who was considering retirement as Canterbury’s fortunes declined. Instead, he will saddle three horses Friday, when more than $233,000 in purses will be won on opening night.
“Two years ago, it was like we were waiting for the funeral,’’ Rhone said. “Now that we have a 10-year deal, I’m ready to go. It feels like a rebirth.’’