At Canterbury Park, no races, no purses, no reason to stay

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 25, 2011 - 8:36 AM
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Canterbury Park in Shakopee.

Photo: Brendan Sullivan, Star Tribune file

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It is a virtual small town, complete with residences, a restaurant, a laundry, medical and dental offices, numerous small businesses, even a counseling program for drug and alcohol abuse. But on Tuesday, it was more like a ghost town where almost everyone is unemployed because of the government shutdown.

Even the horses looked depressed.

The mood was alternately somber and angry for the jockeys at Canterbury Park, so much so that when I asked veteran jock Paul Nolan what he would like to say to the geniuses who run the state, he replied: "You mean besides the four-letter words?"

They are among the innocent victims of the state closure, many of them low-paid workers and independent contractors who simply do not earn a living if their horses don't run. Since jockeys and some trainers who own their horses are considered independent business owners, they also don't qualify for unemployment.

Canterbury Park is regulated by the Minnesota Racing Commission (MRC), which is a state agency. Even though Canterbury Park pays for the costs of regulation and is paid up through July, a judge ruled that the MRC must close, and thus Canterbury. The track has appealed the decision, but meanwhile, the 1,100 employees are out of work, along with several hundred jockeys, trainers, hot walkers and others.

Canterbury officials are still booking races for as soon as Thursday, hoping for a miracle. But they are finding it increasingly difficult to get out-of-state horses to commit. Meanwhile, a few owners loaded their horses into trailers Tuesday morning, literally looking for greener pastures. If races are canceled again this weekend, many of the jockeys will start looking elsewhere for horses to ride.

As Canterbury spokesman Jeff Maday drove me around the back side of the track in a golf cart, employees called out to him: "Any news?"

One was jockey Lori Keith, who was trying to find something to do as she sat by her vehicle with her dog, Seve, and worried about keeping weight off during the lull.

"I need a paycheck," said Keith. She had just returned from Lincoln, Neb., where she had picked up a few races to keep her busy and, she hoped, win some money. Jockeys get minimal payments just to ride, but really only make a living if they win.

She took a second place and two thirds, winning $150. But she paid $90 a night for a hotel and $200 in gas, "So I lost money."

Keith is British, and when she tells her friends back home the state has shut down they find it difficult to believe. "They say there would be rioting in the streets if that happened," she said. "This wouldn't happen in England."

In one of the stables, trainer Bruce Reicken was lathering up a feisty racehorse to keep busy. Reicken had just lost business because an owner decided not to send a horse for him to train because of the shutdown. Still, he feels luckier than some. Owners of some of the horses he trains are still paying him. But he also owns horses, and the bills don't stop.

"With no purses to run for, it's not really the sport of kings," he said.

Who does Reicken blame?

"It goes to the top," he said, naming the governor and legislators.

"A little kid could almost look at this and say, [Canterbury] pays the state to run, so it makes no sense to shut us down," Reicken said.

Because the card club, simulcasting and live races also build money for next year's purses, the stall is already having a ripple effect into the future.

That has jockeys such as Nolan, whose family lives in Bloomington, worried they may have to find work elsewhere -- or move. He's called a few tracks to see if he can find horses to ride, "but it's tough for a rider to get into them if they are already running."

Jockey Adolfo Morales has considered going back to Peru, where his father has a stable. Keith is looking into going to West Virginia.

"It's just me and the dog," said Keith. "We can pick up and hit the road again. Glorified Gypsies we are."

Nolan's advice to public officials: "Get your heads straight. You are affecting people's lives."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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