As the harness track in northern Anoka County prepares for another season of live racing, it finally appears to be turning a corner.
The purses will be significantly larger for the fifth straight year. More than 420 horse owners have applied for stalls. Eager anticipation has replaced last year's worry over the state shutdown.
As Running Aces Harness Park prepares for a live-racing meet that runs from June 6 through Labor Day, the track that stumbled out of the gate five years ago and struggled through an ownership transfer, a down-spiraling economy and last year's partial state government shutdown now appears ready to approach the winner's circle.
When Stephen Deckoff, the founder and managing principal of Black Diamond Capital Management, upped his stock in the parent company that runs Running Aces, he signified that the track in northern Anoka County "is a very important business," said Mary Manney of the Minnesota Racing Commission.
"From the card room to the food, everything they've done at Running Aces is very impressive," Manney said. "They've done things the right way. Now, we just have to wait and see."
The park in Columbus now awaits the one vital ingredient that has been so elusive for years: luck.
A racino bill that could supplement funding for a Vikings stadium would greatly benefit both Running Aces and Canterbury Park in Shakopee, but doesn't appear likely anytime soon. The track would also love to see an expansion to its state-mandated 50-card-table limit.
But after the growing pains Running Aces has been through, management will gladly play the hand it's been dealt this season.
"Looking at our history is important," said Running Aces General Manager Bob Farinella. "And what that history shows is that our business has gotten better each year.
"We're excited. We've made great strides."
Some are as obvious as the higher quality horses the harness park has attracted. Or the property sign for Running Aces on I-35 leading into Columbus. Or the way the harness track has embraced social media.
One thing hasn't changed: Admission remains free.
"You can make a night at Running Aces as expensive as you want it to be," said Aaron Bedessem, the track's marketing director.
"The food's great, so it makes a perfect date night," Bedessem said. "It can be a family event. Even after the race ends, there are always horses on the track, still something to watch."
When the horses are not on the track, there often are simulcasts of races to follow.
Running Aces remains something of an underdog to Canterbury Park, where live thoroughbred racing begins May 18. But the Running Aces management team thinks the two tracks complement one another. When the tracks hold live races on the same dates, they do so at different times, with Running Aces racing at night.
"We think we're well positioned to continue to improve, add new wrinkles," Farinella said.
Where layoffs were once a fact of life, Running Aces is currently preparing to increase its work force from 500 to 650 for the summer, Farinella said.
New relationships are being forged with Minnesota horse owners. And while the nucleus of horses racing at Running Aces comes from Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio and Illinois, the harness park has established working relationships with stables as far away as California.
"We continue to educate those who come for racing, to help them understand how racing works," Farinella said.
"Our major issue is still the economy not being the best," he said.
"But we're working through these things. We're profitable. Not having to look in a dark hole every day has its advantages."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419