On a track built for horses, sometimes lap dogs make it to the winner’s circle.

With interest in traditional derby racing on the wane, racetracks have turned more to novelty events to stay alive. At Shakopee’s Canterbury Park, that means hosting quirky canine sprints with bulldogs, corgis and dachshunds — all of which come with their own cheering sections.

Over the past 20 years, Canterbury Park has evolved into a south-metro destination that widely caters to young families rather than just gamblers. To attract the next generation of racing enthusiasts, the track has established itself as an industry leader by betting heavily on family-friendly entertainment. Track operators say marketing gimmicks help drive attendance at the park, whose visitors are often leery of gambling more than a few bucks at a time.

“We could bring in a horse from the Kentucky Derby and put up a $500,000 purse and not draw a crowd like for the dogs,” said Canterbury President Randy Sampson, one of the track’s owners. “That’s what this market enjoys.”

On Memorial Day, the state’s premier horse racing track hosted its second annual “Running of the Bulldogs,” a tongue-in-cheek marketing twist on the famed “Running of the Bulls” event in Pamplona, Spain. At the safer Shakopee version, hordes of children peered over railings and perched on their dads’ shoulders for a glimpse at the wrinkly faced racers.

Chesty, a daring 3-year-old English bulldog, gave his owner the slip after crossing the finish line, scampering around the dirt track for several minutes and evading capture — much to the crowd’s delight.

“Can somebody call security?” quipped longtime announcer Paul Allen to howling fans. Meanwhile, an 80-pound bulldog named Meatball barely wobbled past the starting gate.

Learning curve

John Groen, Canterbury’s vice president of marketing, said horse racing has a learning curve. “The more you know about horse racing, the more you’re probably willing to bet on it,” Groen said.

Wagering accounts for about three-quarters of Canterbury’s revenue — with half coming from its 60-table card casino. Sampson estimates the average racing fan nationwide bets $100 a day at a track, compared to Canterbury’s $20. The Shakopee track gets a quarter of its revenue from nongaming sources like food and festivals.

To remain profitable, Sampson and his staff must get creative. They’ve built an arcade for youngsters. They’ve hosted Extreme Race Days, featuring jockeys riding ostriches, zebras and camels. And they’ve sponsored July 3 fireworks shows that draw more than 20,000 spectators.

Jim Mulvihill, spokesman for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, credits Canterbury with being an “incubator” for family-friendly promotions that successfully fill its grandstand. Other tracks have begun copying specialty events that it started or popularized, he said.

“Canterbury Park has been pretty fearless in its willingness to try new things in a sport that’s been known for being tradition-obsessed to a fault,” said Mulvihill, whose organization promotes the interests of horse racing. “They just seem to have a knack for coming up with ideas that resonate with audiences beyond the core racing fans.”

Initially, the track’s experimental nature met resistance from die-hards who thought integrating T-shirt cannons and wiener dog heats in between prized thoroughbred races would trivialize the sport.

From the beginning, the Sampsons knew that the 408-acre complex would need to remain occupied year-round to stay afloat. An expo center on the grounds accommodated indoor events like Junk Bonanza, a biannual antique show, as well as dance and mixed martial arts tournaments. Canterbury has also filled its huge surface lots with food truck festivals and car shows.

During the offseason, it also hosts the Triple Header of Snocross — touted as the “Daytona 500” of snowmobile racing.

Fun for all

Sunday at the racetrack means Family Day, where dozens of strollers zigzag through the crowd.

Those under 18 gain access to a giant wooden jungle gym, pony rides, face painting and a petting zoo — all for free.

Stacy Strojny of Apple Valley recently accompanied her two young nieces to the track, where they patted animals and snacked on ice cream. Sometimes the girls will wait to feed horses peppermints along their route to the infield.

“It’s hours of fun for so little money,” said Strojny, who estimated spending $20 total that day. “You cannot beat that anywhere.”

“Even cheaper than a movie,” said the girls’ mother, Kate Anderson.

The track sometimes hears complaints about the close association of families with gambling, Sampson said. He notes that the two activities are kept separate.

Laura Riesgraf, who regularly brings her 1- and 3-year-old sons to the park, said her children will get exposed to gambling one way or another. “I’d rather them be exposed to it with us, where it’s healthy,” she said.

More traditional tracks prefer the booze-and-cigar culture popular with serious gamblers. But some industry executives have begun turning that model on its head — arguing that horse racing cannot continue without cultivating new fans.

Robertino Diodoro, a thoroughbred trainer who houses 60 racehorses in Canterbury’s stables, praised the park’s upbeat atmosphere and ability to attract younger crowds.

“At too many tracks, if you have a kid under 15 years old, it’s not even worth bringing them. It’s just not fun for them,” Diodoro said. “Tracks that don’t have much attendance should probably take notes.”

Diodoro started racing at Canterbury following the 2012 marketing agreement with Mystic Lake Casino Hotel, which will inject $75 million into the track by 2022. The deal boosted the annual purse total to $14 million from $6 million in exchange for Canterbury limiting non-horse gambling to its card room and dropping its bid to become a “Racino” by adding video slot machines.

While the agreement strengthened the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s local monopoly on casino-style gambling, Canterbury officials acknowledge it was a crucial lifeline for the struggling business.

And while the deal also stabilized the track, Canterbury spokesman Jeff Maday says the track must constantly find new ways to attract guests if it’s to thrive.

“The days of seeing a stretch run of a horse are over,” Maday said. “You have to appeal to the audience.”

 

liz.sawyer@startribune.com 612-673-4648