Nine tracks in North America held full thoroughbred meetings in 2015 and averaged more than $400,000 in daily purses: Churchill Downs and Keeneland in Kentucky, Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga in New York, Woodbine in Toronto, Oaklawn in Arkansas and Del Mar and Santa Anita in California.
This would be the major leagues of thoroughbred racing. And Canterbury Park in Shakopee?
"Right now, we're in Double-A,'' Eric Halstrom said. "But we're the young guy with the live arm looking to move up.''
Halstrom has the title of vice president of racing operations for Canterbury Park. He was hired for that job in October 2013, in a reflection of a new, aggressive plan for the track made financially possible through an agreement signed with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community a year earlier.
The track was low-A when reopened for live racing in 1995 and moved to high-A when state legislation allowed a card room to be added in 2000.
So, Class AA, that's not bad growth. The major leagues aren't likely to happen, but a successful Class AAA franchise, the thoroughbred equivalent of the Durham Bulls … that's now possible.
Two weeks ago, Canterbury Park announced it would be making a significant cut in the share that the track takes from betting pools. The initiative drew nationwide publicity — and praise — from horse players and their organizations.
Canterbury's takeout was 17 percent for straight bets, meaning win, place and show. "That was competitive nationally,'' Halstrom said.
Canterbury's takeout was 23 percent for exotic wagers, meaning exactas, trifectas, etc. "That was high,'' Halstrom said.
The blended takeout — meaning the percentage taken from all betting pools — was 20.5 percent. That fit with most tracks. Kentucky Downs in Franklin, Ky, was the lowest, at 17.5 percent, but that's for a boutique, five-day meet on turf. Canterbury will go 69 days between May 20 and Sept. 17.
Cantebury's new rates announced in mid-April will be the lowest takeout in American thoroughbred racing: 15 percent for win-place-show pools, 18 percent for exotic pools, for a blended takeout estimated at 16.5 percent.
The state of Minnesota gets the same cut. The daily purses (including quarter horse races) will average $205,000, compared to $75,000 when track CEO Randy Sampson and his partners were trying to get live racing back on its hooves in 1997.
This growth aside, Canterbury always had a problem that would not go away: The hard-core horse players from around the country ignored its racing cards.
These days, the big bettors have endless options for tracks to play, whether at a simulcast location or from a home computer (or a smartphone, for that matter).
And no matter how good they are at the task, no horse player can handicap all the tracks. They make a daily choice on a couple of tracks to play. Canterbury has been largely shut out of that action.
"Randy and I talked to a lot of people in the racing business; we talked to our customers, and we made trips to talk to horse players,'' Halstrom said. "We went to Las Vegas and other places and talked to people who play every day for big dollars.
"Canterbury was getting no play from these people.''
So, the question was asked of these horse players:
If Canterbury were to continue to upgrade its racing, and lower its takeout, would they get support from these dedicated bettors? There were enough positive responses to go forward.
"We really are a different place when it comes to racing in this country,'' Halstrom said. "We averaged 7,000 people a day here last year. Nobody is doing that at a track this size.
"Most places, people aren't coming to the track to bet. At many places, less than 10 percent of the daily handle comes on bets made at the track. Canterbury … we were almost one-third.''
Canterbury's simulcasts are distributed by Twin Spires, a Churchill Downs enterprise. Canterbury makes 4 percent off those wagers, and then splits that with its horsemen.
The idea in lowering the takeout is to drive up the total handle for individual races.
"Right now, the guy in Las Vegas who wants to bet $10,000 on a horse he likes, he's not going to bet into a Canterbury pool because it will lower the odds too much,'' Halstrom said.
"If a lower takeout gets people from around the country betting into our pools, those pools will be larger and a big bet won't move the odds to such an extent.
"So far, the feedback from horse players has been great. We'll see what happens when we start racing on May 20.''
That's the Friday night before the Preakness. And to make it simple, this is the track's New Deal:
A year ago, for every $200 bet into Canterbury pools, $159 was returned to the public. In 2016, it will be $167.
Better than a sharp stick in the eye, as we used to say in Murray County.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org