Canterbury reopens, and none too soon

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 20, 2011 - 9:58 PM

The track estimates it lost millions during the government shutdown. With everyone back on board, it hopes to find ways to recoup some of that.

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Canterbury Park worker Elias Ortiz tended to one of the park's race horses in a park barn.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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With three weekends of racing already lost to the government shutdown, Tom Metzen could wait no longer. The president of Canterbury Park's horsemen arranged for some trainers to make a quick road trip to Iowa on Saturday, where the Prairie Meadows racetrack had agreed to host seven races for Canterbury's idled thoroughbreds.

Metzen happily canceled the caravan Wednesday morning when the shutdown ended, allowing Canterbury Park to resume its season Thursday night. His next task will be to meet with Randy Sampson, president of the Shakopee track, to figure out how to fill the gaping hole left by the cancellation of 12 racing days -- including some of the biggest draws of the summer. Canterbury already has added extra races to this week's four cards, and Sampson said he likely will try to extend the season beyond its scheduled end on Labor Day.

Sampson estimated that Canterbury lost $3 million in revenue during the suspension of live racing and the 20-day shutdown of the track's card club and simulcast wagering. While he isn't certain how much of that can be recouped, he is eager to get started -- as is Metzen, who will be cheering on two of his own horses when the starting gates spring open Thursday.

"Everyone is celebrating," said Metzen, a horse owner from St. Paul. "We didn't think this was going to last long, and after a while, it was hard to keep everyone's spirits up. People just wanted to run their horses.

"But I don't know of one stable that left. I'm really proud of our horsemen. This is a happy day for all of us."

Canterbury was forced to close during the shutdown because it is regulated by the Minnesota Racing Commission, a government agency that was shuttered. The track asked Judge Kathleen Gearin to allow it to continue operating because it pays for regulatory services in advance, but she denied several appeals.

Sampson summoned more than 1,000 employees back to work for the opening of the card club at 10 a.m. Thursday, followed by simulcast wagering an hour later. The 10 live races will begin at the usual Thursday post time of 7 p.m. Running Aces Harness Park in Columbus also will open its card club at 10 a.m. Thursday and will resume live racing at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Canterbury officials had worried that a prolonged shutdown would prompt trainers and owners to move to other tracks, which could have left it with a shortage of horses for the rest of the season. While a few sent horses to run in selected out-of-state races, Metzen said they all returned. Horses that were entered in canceled races now are eligible to receive bonus payments if they run at Canterbury later this summer, a program that Metzen and Sampson credited with helping to keep the stables filled.

Sampson intends to reschedule as many canceled races as possible, including the eight stakes races lost to the shutdown. He also plans to find other dates for the fireworks show that was scheduled for July 3; the free hot dogs and weiner-dog races planned for July 4; and the ostrich and camel races that were set for last Sunday. Those days typically attract some of the season's largest crowds.

Sampson said he expects to make up some of the canceled races with at least one extra weekend in September. The track also could run some additional days in August or add races to some of the remaining 28 days on the original schedule. The Minnesota Racing Commission must approve any changes, but Sampson said he expects that will not be a problem.

Metzen said he has already spoken to some horsemen about staying for an extra weekend or two. He also has asked some trainers in Iowa to consider coming to Canterbury after the Prairie Meadows thoroughbred season ends Aug. 13, and he said he has gotten a positive response.

Even if Canterbury can reschedule all of its races and fill them with horses, Sampson doesn't expect to recapture all the revenue lost by the cancellation of a holiday weekend. Thursday night, though, he won't be thinking that far ahead.

"It's going to be a huge relief to see everyone back at work and see the horses running again," he said. "It will be good to put the trauma of the last three weeks behind us."

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