Had he stopped to think about what he was doing, Dale Schenian might never have agreed to become a minority partner in Canterbury Park. “It was a big risk,” he said. “When we opened, we just hoped some people and horses showed up.”
Schenian wasn’t even well acquainted with Curtis Sampson, the man maneuvering to buy the shuttered racetrack in 1994. But he shared Sampson’s motivation to revive racing in Minnesota, so they and their fellow horsemen could enjoy watching their horses run in their home state. Sunday, one of their favorite days on the Canterbury calendar — the annual Festival of Champions, reserved for Minnesota-bred horses — will highlight what has been a memorable season for both of their stables.
Sampson, 84, leads the thoroughbred owner’s standings with 14 victories and $289,045 in earnings. Schenian, 76, saw his star Hold for More become the track’s all-time leading money-winner. Hold for More will be part of a loaded field in Sunday’s $60,000 Crocrock Minnesota Sprint Championship. Sampson’s Double Bee Sting — winner of last month’s Minnesota Oaks — will race older mares in the $60,000 Glitter Star Minnesota Distaff Classic Championship.
The two men have long been a familiar presence at Canterbury Park, acting as unofficial greeters, promoters and historians. They cannot walk through the grandstand without being recognized by people who want to talk to them. Sampson sometimes hands out free drink coupons or other goodies — especially when one of his horses wins — and invites strangers to join him in the winner’s circle.
Just being among happy crowds, Schenian said, still gives him “goose bumps.” Seeing their horses succeed adds another layer of pride for him and Sampson, particularly on the day that reminds them why they bought the track.
“This is a day everyone looks forward to,” said Sampson, who won the last of his two titles as champion owner in 1997. “We’ve always entered a lot of horses on Festival day. It’s such a big thing for the Minnesota owners and breeders.
“When we bought Canterbury, we just wanted a place to run all the horses we already had. We were just hoping to have some fun.”
The pair does that every time they show up in Shakopee. Schenian, who sold his auto glass business in 2015, comes to the track on every live racing day. Sampson remains chairman of Communications Systems Inc., a broadband network company he founded in 1969; he attends the races a couple of times a week, and he still plays baseball and works with horses on his farm.
The two headed a group that bought Canterbury after it had stood empty for nearly two years, paying $8 million for a facility valued at $80 million. Sampson now is chairman, and Schenian vice chairman, of a publicly held company with reported revenue of $52.3 million in 2016.
Both were deeply invested in racing as owners and breeders when Canterbury Downs closed after the 1992 season. Bad management had driven away both fans and horsemen, sending the track into financial ruin and forcing Minnesotans to quit the horse business or race in other states. Sampson and his son, Randy, put together a bid to buy the track and enlisted Schenian, who committed even before asking how much they wanted him to invest.
“I just said, ‘Where do you want me to wire the check?’ ” Schenian recalled. “We didn’t know what we were getting into. But we knew there was value here.”
Part of that value was highly personal, giving both men an outlet to continue their breeding and racing operations. Hold for More has won three of five races at Canterbury this summer, pushing his career earnings to $384,450 and breaking the track’s all-time earnings record held by Crocrock, another Schenian horse. Sampson has bred or owned Canterbury champions such as Wally’s Choice, Lt. Sampson and Samdanya.
Both are used to celebrating on Festival of Champions day. Sampson’s horses have won nine Festival stakes races, and Schenian’s have won six. On Sunday, Schenian has two chances to build on that total; Sampson has three.
Even if they spend the afternoon congratulating others, Schenian said, he won’t be disappointed.
“Think about it,” he said. “This place was shut down. Then a couple of guys from South St. Paul and Hector took a chance, and look at it now. That’s rewarding.’’