There is new optimism about the future of Canterbury Park since the Mdewakanton Sioux -- acting this week after quiet maneuvering by Gov. Mark Dayton's office and House Speaker Kurt Zellers -- agreed to funnel millions to boost racing purses in return for the track dropping its perennial effort to secure state approval for slot machines.
"It's a big shot in the arm," said Doug Schoepf, a wiry former jockey who serves as Canterbury Park's racing secretary. "It's going to make racing in Minnesota more competitive." The deal could not only save Canterbury, but also the state's horse breeding industry.
From her small office at the track, Patrice Underwood sees the deal as a chance to reverse negative numbers for the Minnesota Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, which she heads. When Underwood began as executive director eight summers ago, the group had 3,000 members -- almost all of them horse owners and trainers. Now, she said, the figure is 1,900.
The falling numbers at Canterbury have been signaling the need for change for some time. The track's average purse -- $116,010 last year -- had steadily fallen from $149,767 in 2006. The average daily attendance of 6,143 last year was the highest in two decades, but a far cry from the 13,162 daily average from the track's first year in 1985.
Canterbury has room for 1,500 horses, and in the track's early days portable stables were added to handle the overflow. These days, a track official said, roughly 1,100 horses stay in the backside stables.
Track spokesman Jeff Maday said there were as few as 11 quarter horse foals born in Minnesota last year. "You can't possibly run a Minnesota-bred program with 11," he said. "The system was on the verge of imploding."
Barb Noll, an agent for two jockeys, said the state's horse breeding dilemma was coupled with the reality that the track's shrinking purses were too small to draw out-of-state horse owners. "They look at the map, and it's too far. They look at the purse structure, [and] it's too far to go for that purse structure," she said.
Under the agreement, the Mdewakanton Sioux will contribute $75 million over the next decade. Maday said the deal will add $2.7 million this year to the $6 million already committed to race purses, and that the tribe would eventually add $8.1 million annually.
"I can't see a downside," said Noll, a retired schoolteacher who is now 81.
Pick up the phone
The manner in which the deal came together with the Sioux highlighted how the state's top politicians gently prodded and tried to read the intentions of the tribe's difficult-to-reach leaders.
Horse industry officials, providing more details on what happened, said the agreement evolved over the past two months after Dayton's office and Zellers contacted the Sioux and urged tribal leaders to return phone messages being left by industry representatives. Jeff Hilger, the president of the Equine Development Coalition of Minnesota, said Dayton told him his best chance of saving the state's horse industry was to strike a deal with the Sioux because raising money by allowing slot machines at the track -- a proposal known as racino -- was going nowhere at the Capitol.
Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said the governor didn't play a direct role in helping broker the deal, but a top aide spoke to a Mdewakanton Sioux lobbyist on behalf of the state's horse industry and said "would you, please, answer their calls."
Tribal legal counsel Willie Hardacker disputed any notion that the Sioux were unresponsive and said Stanley Crooks, the chairman of the Sioux's business council, sent Dayton a letter in March raising the possibility of helping the state's horse industry. But Hardacker acknowledged, "Canterbury came to the tribe more so than the other way around."
As the Legislature adjourned last month, things began moving.
Hilger said Canterbury Park President Randy Sampson suddenly phoned with news regarding the tribe. "Jeff, they've called me and want to talk," Hilger quoted Sampson as saying.
A Canterbury official said Mystic Lake Casino executive Edward Stevenson later told Sampson that the tribe had received a phone call from Zellers.
Zellers, a Maple Grove Republican who had co-sponsored racino legislation, said he had for more than a year been trying to bridge his policy differences in meetings with tribal leaders, including Crooks. In the past two months, as he urged the two sides to reach an agreement, Zellers said he told the Sioux that "this is something that is good for you" and that "you'd have support at the Legislature."
Underwood said she joined the push for a racino this year by contacting horsemen and making repeated trips to the state Capitol. But it was always difficult -- and frustrating -- trying to figure out where individual legislators stood, she said. "It was hard to read," said Underwood.
Track was hanging on
As she waited for the next horse to get into Canterbury's equine swimming pool, Casey Culver said she understands that racino might have provided money -- not only to boost the track and horse industry, but also for the state to use for education and other needs. But Culver, who helps run the track's swimming pool and lives in Phoenix, said it was time to take the sure bet. Should Canterbury Park close, she said, the money she and others spend during their five months a year in Minnesota would go away.
"We spend a lot -- a lot of money here," said Culver, who lives in a nearby RV park during the summer.
Cindy Rhone and her husband, Bernell, a trainer, have 14 employees at Canterbury Park and also own their own horses. "I think it would have been pretty hard for the track to hold on much longer," she said.
So it came as pleasant news that the track and the tribe came to an agreement. "I guess we were a little surprised that they decided to work together," Rhone said.
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673