In horse racing terminology, Canterbury Park’s season was a step slow at the break. A chilly, rainy May caused business at the Shakopee track to drop 15 percent below expectations during its first few weeks, leaving officials worried about whether they could catch up.
Like a champion closer, though, Canterbury charged down the stretch to record a strong finish to a 69-day season that ends Saturday. Before a blockbuster final weekend — with 318 horses entered in 27 races — its total handle already had surpassed the Canterbury Park record of $43.7 million set last year. Though live on-track wagering was flat through the season’s first 67 days, a 12.7 percent increase in out-of-state handle fueled total wagering of $45 million.
The totals will climb further over two jam-packed final days. To accommodate owners and trainers eager to run their horses one last time, Canterbury scheduled a 13-race, six-hour marathon Friday, attracting more than 150 thoroughbreds. It was an exhausting day for horses and humans alike, but track CEO Randy Sampson wasn’t complaining.
“We had a hole to dig ourselves out of in May and June with the bad weather,” Sampson said. “We’ve been fighting the whole time.
“But when you get to the end, and you see numbers that are really encouraging, we’re really pleased with that. And with the strong out-of-state handle, the record purses and the very competitive racing, it’s been a successful meet on all counts.”
Canterbury Park planned a 70-day season, but rain and lightning forced the cancellation of one entire card and parts of two others. Once the weather settled down, attendance and handle picked up.
Through 67 days, average daily attendance was down 0.2 percent compared to last season. That contributed to a 3 percent decline in average daily on-track handle, but out-of-state wagering remained robust. Average daily handle from out-of-state locations rose 9.3 percent, lifting average total handle on live racing by 6.1 percent.
Purses also increased sharply this year, to a Canterbury Park-record $15.2 million. The purse-enhancement agreement with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community added $7.28 million to the total, and the purse fund was pumped up by stronger business at Canterbury’s card club and the track’s cut of horse racing wagers made online.
The purse-enhancement agreement runs through 2022, and Sampson said there have been initial conversations — but no active negotiations — toward an extension. “There are a lot of variables, but I’m optimistic an agreement can be reached,” Sampson said. “I know all of the parties believe the relationship has been successful, and that continuing it on some level is good for everybody.”
Despite the purse growth, Canterbury saw a 6 percent decline in the size of race fields through the first 67 racing days. Andrew Offerman, the track’s director of racing, said some trainers who didn’t do as well as they hoped last season did not return. There also was a higher proportion of 2-year-olds in the stables, and they do not run as frequently.
Many tracks around the country are having trouble attracting horses, and Offerman said Canterbury has not been affected as severely as other Midwestern tracks.
“The falloff in starters is concerning,” Offerman said. “But even though our field size is down, it’s still above the national average. I think we’re at least holding our own, if not doing better than most of our midmarket competition.”
Though there were fewer horses running, Canterbury’s racing was extremely competitive this season. The meet included stars such as Mr. Jagermeister, who won four stakes races in five starts, and Jess Doin Time, whose two quarter horse stakes victories included the $146,000 Mystic Lake Northlands Futurity.
A deep and talented jockey colony produced five riders with $1 million or more in earnings, the most in recent memory, topped by Ry Eikleberry’s $1,630,438. Eikleberry led the standings with 83 victories heading into the final weekend, 10 more than Orlando Mojica.
A tight trainer’s race between Mac Robertson and Robertino Diodoro will be decided on the final day. Robertson, an 11-time champion, began the weekend with 53 victories. Diodoro — the only trainer who has bested Robertson in the season standings over the past 13 years — has 50.