On the groomed front stretch of the track at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, a riderless horse wore a handwritten sign across his withers that said, simply: "Let me run."

Hundreds of racetrack workers, family members and politicians rallied at the horse track Wednesday in an attempt to get it reopened after two weeks of state shutdown.

They also pushed for an overhaul in state gambling policy that would allow "racino" gambling at the track.

"This is criminal," said Rosemary Higgins, a quarter-horse owner from Princeton who was carrying her own sign: "My horse needs a job!"

"My horse pays its way with its winnings and needs to work," she said. "It costs me $50 a day just to keep training, there's vet bills, the farrier. I could go out of state, but I'm not ready to give up yet."

Track officials say that more than 1,000 Canterbury workers have been laid off and that eight of the track's 62 racing days already have been lost to the shutdown.

Canterbury Park and Running Aces in the north metro are regulated by the Minnesota Racing Commission, a state agency. Even though the tracks pay for the costs of regulation and have paid those bills through the end of the month, a judge ruled that the state agency must close, forcing the tracks to shut down.

With the legal ruling against the tracks already handed down and racino proposals having received lukewarm receptions at the Capitol, the Canterbury rally attendees were facing a steep uphill battle.

"I know you'd rather be working," state Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan told the crowd. She added that "a healthy horse industry is important to Minnesota," and said the shutdown has "had a devastating impact on that industry and all of you."

Her Republican colleague, Rep. Mike Beard, of Shakopee, added, "it's just killing us as legislators that it's come to this.'' He added: "Governor, call us back to work. We'd love to be there."

The two legislators sent a letter Wednesday to Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders, describing what they called "the disintegration of Minnesota's horse racing season. ... This is quickly becoming a crisis for our horse industry."

And Canterbury jockey Paul Nolan, a Bloomington resident, told the crowd, "Every time I ride a horse in a race I say to the owner and the trainer, I'll see you in the winner's circle. That's something I haven't been able to say for quite a while. ... The people in St. Paul need to get their heads together."

A native of Great Britain, Nolan also said, "Every single jockey loves this place. They love Canterbury, they love Minnesota. ... I don't want to leave this state. I don't want to go to Iowa to ride. I don't want to go to Illinois to ride. This is my home. This is where my house is. This is where I pay my taxes."

Bob von Sternberg • 651-222-0973