Shakopee is a long way from Louisville, and no blanket of roses awaited Cowboy Creed as he was led into the winner’s circle Saturday at Canterbury Park. But the smile on Ry Eikleberry’s dirt-flecked face reflected the truth every jockey knows: Nothing beats crossing the finish line first, in the Kentucky Derby or on a glorious afternoon in Minnesota.
Eikleberry is back for his first full season at Canterbury since he won the track’s jockey championship in 2014. Cowboy Creed kept him in the fast lane on the second day of the meet, giving him his fourth victory of the weekend in Saturday’s fourth race. While Canterbury alumnus Mike Smith did what every jockey dreams of — winning the Kentucky Derby for the second time, guiding favorite Justify impeccably over the Churchill muck — Eikleberry delighted in his own small victory.
The 70-day season that began Friday will offer $15.2 million in purses, the most since Canterbury reopened in 1995. A Derby Day crowd announced at 19,326, decked out in floral dresses, feathered hats and fedoras, wagered a total of $723,186.
“As long as you’re doing well, you’re going to enjoy it wherever you are,” said Eikleberry, sixth on Canterbury’s all-time earnings list with $6.04 million in purses. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a $3,000 race. Everybody wants to win.
“But Canterbury is a really neat place. It’s got a lot of character, and it gets a little better every year. I’m excited to be back.”
Eikleberry, who has ridden in New Mexico, California and Iowa in recent seasons, was lured back by the chance to make good money and his family ties. His wife, Jilique, is from Minnesota, and the couple has two young children.
He isn’t the only rider to smell opportunity in Shakopee. This season’s jockey colony is considered the deepest in Canterbury Park history, with at least six capable of winning the season title. Five-time riding champ Dean Butler is back after recovering from spinal fractures suffered in a spill last summer and surgery for a brain aneurysm discovered after the accident. Last year’s leading rider, Jareth Loveberry, has returned, and Leandro Goncalves, the 2015 Canterbury champion, is back, too.
A handful of regular Canterbury jockeys have ridden in the Kentucky Derby. Smith, who was in Shakopee from 1985 to ’88, won the Derby in 2005 aboard Giacomo and repeated Saturday. He remains in the Canterbury record books, ranking third in all-time win percentage (21 percent), sixth in all-time in-the-money percentage (49.8) and sixth in most victories for a season (131, 1986).
After eight races Saturday, the Canterbury colony took a break for the Derby, gathering in the jockeys’ lounge underneath the grandstand to watch Smith triumph in the slop. They emerged to find a thunderstorm had turned the Canterbury track into a river of mud, just like Churchill Downs.
Eikleberry was covered in it after a third-place finish in the ninth race but didn’t mind.
“We all have that dream of riding in the Derby,” he said. “But even if I don’t make it, I’ve had a great career, riding at places like this. I’m just happy to get out to a good start.”