The pattern had played out the same way for the past several years, beginning with the end of each racing season at Canterbury Park. Spend the winter lobbying for a racino, with officials of the Shakopee track sinking countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars into the effort. Lose. Repeat.
Not this year. The purse-enhancement agreement signed in June with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community changed the offseason landscape dramatically, for the track and for Minnesota's horse owners and breeders. As the 2012 season closed Monday, many horsemen already were planning to expand or upgrade their operations for a 2013 season that will be both longer and richer. Canterbury President Randy Sampson prepared to devote the winter -- and the money that used to go to lobbyists -- to building his racing and card club businesses, rather than spending most of his time at the State Capitol.
Sampson said the track will run at least 65 days next season and could run as many as 70, which would be the longest season since the track reopened in 1995. Purses, which got an infusion of $2.7 million from the tribal deal this year, will rise another $2.7 million in 2013. Several breeders said they plan to produce more foals in Minnesota next spring, and some owners already are purchasing more or better horses to run next summer.
The higher purses paid immediate dividends as well. Monday's 11-race card attracted a whopping 119 entries, and the optimism spread to the fans. The average attendance of 6,595 was the highest since Canterbury reopened in 1995, and wagering on live racing increased 12.9 percent, to $452,405 per day. Total handle also increased 8.8 percent over 2011, to $592,773 per day.
"I used to get asked, 'Why are you still breeding in Minnesota?' " said Cam Casby, a breeder and owner from Shakopee whose horses won eight races and $221,284 in earnings this summer. "In the past few months, I've had three people ask me about leasing mares, and I know five to eight who are buying mares in foal and bringing them to Minnesota. People are extremely optimistic and excited."
The agreement with the Shakopee tribe will provide $83.5 million to Canterbury over 10 years and ended the track's pursuit of a racino. This year, the track received $3 million, with 10 percent dedicated to joint marketing efforts with Mystic Lake Casino and the rest going to purses. Its daily purses rose to $157,447, a 32 percent increase over 2011 and the highest since its 1995 reopening.
The payment will increase to $6 million next year, with $5.4 million going to the purse fund -- pushing purses to nearly twice the amount the track originally planned to pay this summer. Supplemental funding will rise in future years. The extra money enabled Canterbury to add a $160,000 stakes race to its schedule this summer: the Mystic Lake Derby, the richest race run at the track in more than two decades.
Next year, Sampson said, Canterbury plans to run four stakes races with purses of $100,000 or more. A chunk of the marketing money will go toward a new tote board and infield television screen. Track officials will cast a wider recruiting net, trying to entice higher-quality stables from tracks such as Oaklawn and Fair Grounds, and Sampson expects Minnesota owners who race their best horses elsewhere to bring many of them home.
"The mood in the industry has changed completely," Sampson said. "I'm very optimistic that next year, we'll be oversubscribed in our barn area for the first time in years and years. That's going to allow us to be more selective. All the signs are very, very positive."
The optimism also was reflected in this year's Minnesota Thoroughbred Association yearling sale, held in early August. Two years ago, 17 horses were sold to new owners for an average price of $4,959. This year, 31 horses changed hands, with an average sale price of $10,332.
Jeff and Deb Hilger of rural Stillwater are doubling the size of their barn, anticipating a big increase in the number of broodmares sent to their farm to have their foals. Last spring, seven mares foaled at the Hilgers' place. They already have 22 booked for the coming year.
Jeff Hilger said the purse increase also made a huge difference to the bottom line of his racing operation. Three victories yielded enough earnings to pay his bills. Two years ago, when his horses won 12 of 16 races, he broke even.
"We're getting a lot of new blood, new owners, and that's going to be good," he said. "And you don't have to win to survive. But it's going to get tougher."
Tom Metzen, president of the Minnesota Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said a longer season also will help draw more and better horses. Sampson anticipates the season will begin on the third weekend in May, as usual, and extend past its traditional closing date on Labor Day. The track has not run more than 62 days since a 67-day season in 2008.