Canterbury Park President Randy Sampson calls them “goofy bits,” and he takes pride in how they have become part of the track’s hallmark. In addition to the main attraction — horse racing, now in the 20th season since reopening thanks to the Sampson family — Sampson and the track’s marketing department have tried racing camels, ostriches, zebras and wiener dogs.
Last year they considered a running of the bulls, but the idea was scuttled. This year, they’ll try a variation on that theme, for the first time: bulldog races. The thick, short-legged breed will be featured in three races Sunday, which also happens to be Father’s Day — normally a big day for the track. It’s gimmicky, but it draws a crowd and entertains. That’s the name of the game.
“I’ve always been a believer in it. My dad, he’s not particularly a fan of those things but he’s not opposed to it, either,” Randy said, referring to Curtis Sampson, the Chairman of the Board. “Even the horsemen, originally — the purists — looked at it as cheapening our brand. But now they agree we’re getting a lot of new people out there and having fun. They’re telling other tracks to try some of the things we are doing.”
Nobody else, though, is doing bulldog races — at least to Sampson’s knowledge.
“They are pudgy, short-legged dogs not suited for racing,” he said. “We’re not sure if the dogs will run a straight line, but we’re giving it a shot.”
And why not? Thanks in part to sideshow races, the track set a record last year in terms of both total attendance and average daily attendance.
The Sampson family remains serious about horses — Randy’s brother, Russ, runs the family stable — but the track has borrowed from the St. Paul Saints with a determination not to take itself too seriously.
“I go back to Mike Veeck and have great respect for him. If people have fun, they’ll come back,” Sampson said. “In Minnesota, we can get more people for ostrich races than a $200,000 stakes race.”
They’ll try selling competitive races and fun on Father’s Day, which always falls during the racing season and brings the Sampsons — and other families — together.
“Just in general Father’s Day has always been one of my favorite days at the track,” Sampson said. “I love walking around on Father’s Day and see the grandpa with the son and the young kid all together, having a good time. ... It’s dad’s day to decide what he wants to do.”