He used to drive past the place regularly, just to look at the abandoned Canterbury Downs grandstand and remember how things used to be. When the Shakopee racetrack shut down in 1992, Randy Sampson was running his family’s thoroughbred operation, worrying that racing might never return to Minnesota.
“Weeds were growing up all over, and it wasn’t really even being maintained,’’ Sampson said. “They basically had a couple of security and facilities people to make sure the pipes didn’t freeze, and that was it. It was heartbreaking to think about what this place had been and could be.’’
He didn’t envision that his family would buy the track, much less that he would oversee its resurrection. Earlier this month, Canterbury Park opened its 20th live racing season under Sampson’s management. The track has weathered economic downturns, a nationwide decline in the racing industry and a host of other challenges through Sampson’s careful guidance, as well as the collective efforts of employees, horsemen and racing fans who have spent every summer in Shakopee for the past two decades.
Bartender Lois Rademacher, 82, has served many of the same patrons year after year at the Paddock Pub on the grandstand’s third level. Eric Schmidt started out taking bets as a mutuels teller and now juggles his career as a middle school teacher with his job as Canterbury’s assistant manager of wagering operations. Steve Kane has shod horses at Canterbury for all 20 years since it resumed live racing in 1995 and also has trained a small stable for most of that span.
“From the beginning, there was a group of people who bought into the idea that we were on a mission to try to keep horse racing alive and build it back up,’’ said Sampson, the track’s president. “It’s remarkable how many are still here.
“Now, I drive up and see this building and think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this.’ This is pretty cool, that this has actually worked out the way it has.’’
The mane man
Sampson was president of the Minnesota Thoroughbred Association when Canterbury Downs closed after six years of plummeting handle and attendance. Using his accounting and business background, he developed a plan for reopening the track, proposing a short meet with modest purses that would cater to Minnesota owners and breeders.
He initially pitched the idea to owners of out-of-state tracks and to local racing enthusiasts such as Wheelock Whitney and James Binger.
“It was never my intent to have anything to do with owning or running the track,’’ Sampson said. “I just wanted to find somebody to own it so we could run our horses here. Then my dad said, ‘Maybe we should do this ourselves.’ ’’
Curtis Sampson had one condition: that Randy take charge of the operation. Fellow horse owner Dale Schenian offered to put up money, too, and the group bought the track — which cost $80 million to build — for $8 million in 1994. Since then, Sampson’s conservative leadership has kept Canterbury afloat.
“As far as the likelihood of making this work long-term, we were not real confident,’’ Sampson said. “And nobody else was, either. We knew it was going to be tough. But we felt it deserved a shot.’’
Sampson gave credit to hundreds of Minnesota horsemen and racing fans who invested in the company when it went public in 1994, noting that many of them still own their stock. He has shepherded Canterbury through a government shutdown that interrupted the 2011 season, years of failed attempts to get slot machines and competition from wealthier tracks that lured many horsemen away. Through it all, Canterbury has maintained a reputation as one of the country’s most horseman- and fan-friendly tracks.
A 2012 deal with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community solidified Canterbury’s future for the next decade by adding $75 million to its purses over 10 years. There had been times, Sampson said, when he feared the track would not make it. He is now planning for its long-range future by expanding its non-racing events business and studying proposals for mixed-use developments on its land.
“It’s become my life,’’ he said. “A lot of people were as depressed as me when it closed. With their loyalty, we’ve been able to build this as a team.’’
Queen of the pour
As busy as she was dispensing drinks on Preakness day, Rade- macher kept up her usual banter with the patrons she calls “my boys.’’ She is on a first-name basis with a hearty band of regulars, supplying beverages, bonhomie and the occasional hug — but not wagering advice.
“I enjoy placing a bet once in a while, but I don’t know anything about the horses,’’ the Shakopee resident said. “And I learned years ago not to listen when someone says they have a tip. If I lose my $5, it’s going to be on a horse I picked.’’
Rademacher has been tending bar for 30 years. She’s worked at Canterbury for 27 of those, returning as soon as the track reopened and happily staying put. The octogenarian has such affinity for Canterbury that she steered 11 of her 14 grandchildren into summer jobs at the track, where they also became fixtures throughout their high school and college years.
She has stayed at Canterbury, she said, because the fun and excitement that lured her have never left — and neither have some of her patrons. Rademacher is bound to her regulars by their shared devotion to the track, and she loves the yearly ritual of renewing acquaintances with the trainers and stable-area workers who return every summer.
“If I take a Saturday off, then the next week, I hear, ‘Where were you?’ ’’ she said. “It’s surprising how many people have been coming here since racing started, and how they remember me. That’s part of what makes it a special place.’’
During the last month of the school year, Schmidt doesn’t get a day off. When he’s not teaching eighth-grade English at Dakota Hills Middle School in Eagan, he’s at his Canterbury job, overseeing the tote department and running the infield tote board.
Schmidt started as a mutuel teller in 1989. He worked the wagering windows at a dog track after Canterbury closed, then rushed back as soon as it reopened for simulcasting in 1994. Over the past 20 years, he hasn’t seen any change in the low-stakes betting habits of risk-averse Minnesotans. But he had faith that Canterbury would endure, he said, because it reinvented itself as an entertainment venue built around the spectacle of horse racing.
“I’ll be on the phone with a vendor, and they’ll ask how many people are at the track,’’ he said. “I’ll tell them 10,000, and their response is always, ‘Wow.’ We still emphasize live racing, and that’s why we’re still here. It’s an event, like a mini-State Fair.’’
That also explains why Schmidt has stuck around for two decades. He now considers himself “part of the fabric’’ of Canterbury and speculated he still could be doing the same job in 40 years.
“I went to Hollywood Park in December, and there were about 3,000 people there,’’ he said. “A lot of tracks have become simulcast venues, but this is still a fun place, with good people. I see myself working here until I can’t.’’
Kane got his start as a racehorse trainer at Canterbury Downs in 1988. When the track closed, he was ready to load his horses into a trailer and head to Texas, but his horseshoeing business kept him in Minnesota.
If the track had not reopened, Kane still would be tending to the hooves of pleasure horses and jumpers. He probably wouldn’t be indulging his true passion 20 years later. For the past few years, Kane has run his small stable only at Canterbury, bringing eight horses this spring to his usual spot in barn C-2.
Through his multifaceted involvement in the industry, Kane has ridden the volatile waves of Minnesota racing right along with his home track. He stood stallions at his farm near Cologne, Minn., during prosperous times; during the lean years, he relied on shoeing to pay the bills.
“But training is a lot more fun than shoeing,’’ he said. “It’s nice to still be able to do something I really enjoy doing.’’
Kane has a sentimental attachment to Canterbury, where he trained his first winner in 1988 and saw his daughter, Carrie, get to the winner’s circle as a trainer several years later. He hasn’t made a great deal of money by running in Shakopee, but that hasn’t been the point.
“I just try not to lose money,’’ he said, laughing. “The horse industry really took a beating in Minnesota for a while. It’s good to see how much it’s come back.’’