Gretchen Eaton's birthday falls on Dec. 26, about halfway between the end of one Canterbury Park racing season and the beginning of another. When she reached her 60th last year, she decided to mark that special occasion with a special early celebration.
Eaton chose to hold her party on one of her favorite days of the year. Last summer, she invited about 200 friends and family members to Canterbury's Festival of Champions -- where two of her horses gave her a gift she never expected. Bella Notte and Suddenly Silver won $50,000 stakes races during the annual showcase for Minnesota-bred horses, making Eaton and her husband, Art, the most successful owners in the event's history.
Those stablemates have won four festival races in the past three years, giving the Eatons a total of nine victories. Three other horses they have bred and sold also have won festival stakes, including Silver Me Timbers, who won the first Festival of Champions race in 1992.
Bella Notte and Suddenly Silver will try to add to that legacy on Sunday, when Canterbury Park will be host to the 18th running of the event. Gretchen Eaton figures nothing can top their unforgettable day last year, but she doesn't have to visit the winner's circle to consider it a memorable afternoon.
"It is always such a proud day for Minnesota breeders,'' Eaton said. "It's so exciting to see how the Minnesota-breds compete against each other, and it's such a fun day to celebrate the sport we love with the horses we love. It's like the Academy Awards for Minnesota horses.''
The Eatons operate Leanin' Tree Farm near Randolph, where they have bred thoroughbreds since 1988. They got into racing in 1986, the year after Canterbury was opened, as partners in a small horse-ownership group.
When they began their breeding operation, the Eatons sold all of their horses as yearlings -- including Silver Me Timbers, one of the first foals they raised. By the time Canterbury was reopened in 1995 after a two-year shutdown, they had started keeping some horses to take to the track. They won their first festival race in 1998 with Rookie's Turn in the Minnesota Classic Championship. The following year, Dot's Moment captured the Distaff Sprint Championship.
Their three multiple winners of festival races -- Now Playing, Bella Notte and Suddenly Silver -- have provided the Eatons with some of the fondest memories of their Canterbury Hall of Fame career. Gretchen Eaton still recalls Now Playing's dramatic victory in the 2000 Northern Lights Futurity, which prompted track announcer Paul Allen to exclaim, "He's covering more ground than Lewis and Clark!''
Now Playing also won the Minnesota Turf Championship in 2003 and 2004 and was retired at age 8 with $220,180 in earnings. Bella Notte, winner of the Distaff Sprint Championship in 2009 and 2010, is still competitive at age 7 and has won $239,381.
Suddenly Silver is particularly dear to the Eatons. When his mother died shortly after giving birth, he was driven to a veterinary clinic in the back of an SUV to receive critical nourishment. He won the Minnesota Classic Championship in 2008 and 2010 and finished second in 2009, with career earnings of $152,682.
These are challenging times for Minnesota breeders, with expenses rising and Canterbury's purses shrinking. The Eatons have downsized their operation -- they currently have two broodmares and three horses in training -- but they remain among a core group of diehards who have kept the industry afloat. They also are committed to lifelong stewardship of their animals. Their careful breeding and racing practices have led to long careers for most of their horses, and Gretchen Eaton cares for several equine retirees at their farm.
As much as she enjoys the Festival of Champions, it also leaves Eaton a little melancholy. The event always comes near the end of the racing season, and Canterbury's stables will empty after the final race card on Sept. 11.
By the time her birthday rolls around, she already will be planning for the next summer of racing -- and the next festival day. "We always look forward to it,'' she said. "This is a day for Minnesota breeders to show off what we've got.''