Bigger purses fuel hopes for a new season at Canterbury

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 19, 2012 - 9:24 AM

The anticipation of more rewarding paydays filled Canterbury Park's horse community with hope on a balmy opening night.

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Valorie Lund had plenty of reason to rejoice Friday, when her horse, Joshua's Journey, won the first race on opening night at Canterbury Park. But even before the trainer arrived in Shakopee, she felt she had something to celebrate.

Lund was among a herd of horsemen who welcomed a new Canterbury season with more optimism than usual. For the first time in years, the track expects its purse fund to grow, thanks to legislation signed this month.

That made for a particularly happy kickoff to the 62-day meet, as owners and trainers anticipated the prospect of running for more money -- which already has led some to expand their stables.

A crowd of 8,844 whooped as Joshua's Journey romped to an 11-length victory, beginning an eight-race card that drew $232,248 in on-track wagers -- a 30 percent increase over last year's opening night.

Lund was happy to return under any circumstances; like many trainers, she loves the people, facilities and weather at Canterbury, so she has been willing to race for smaller purses than many other tracks offer. The promise of making more money, however, made opening day sweeter.

"This is a perfect way to start the season," said Lund, who brought 20 horses to Shakopee from her winter base in Arizona. "I love racing here, and I'm thrilled that things are looking up.

"People have worked their tails off to build this business. Racing has been teetering on the edge here, and this is wonderful news for everyone."

Opening day was festive as always, drawing young men puffing cigars, families enjoying picnic dinners and a lively crowd socializing on the track apron. No one was happier than the horsemen. Thoroughbred breeder and owner Jeff Hilger said the mood at a morning horsemen's meeting was more upbeat than it had been in years.

The new law allows Canterbury's card club to house 80 tables, 30 more than its previous limit, and increases maximum poker bets to $100 from $60. That is expected to generate more revenue in the card club, which helps fund purses. The legislation also permits the state's Native American casinos to simulcast horse races, which would contribute more to the purse fund.

Canterbury's low purses have caused many Minnesota owners and breeders to cut back or get out of the business. Hilger's wife, Deb, said they had considered selling land from their Stillwater area farm; when the legislation passed, they cancelled those plans and bred more horses. Some trainers said owners who were thinking of quitting stayed in, and some bought more horses.

Canterbury President Randy Sampson said the card club now has 59 tables and could add blackjack tables in the grandstand this summer. Though it will take time to get simulcast wagering added to the tribal casinos, he said he is discussing a potential marketing and purse enhancement agreement with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux tribe, which could happen more quickly. Even before the legislation, card club revenues were up 15 percent over last year, and Sampson hopes the track can begin to increase purses this summer.

"I don't remember a year when we had this much optimism and excitement about the season from horsemen and fans,'' Sampson said. "People are really happy things are going in the right direction.''

Sampson said his father, Curt, had cut back sharply on the number of horses he raced at Canterbury. He is among those who added to his stable this year, and he was rewarded when 24-1 shot Go Go Jill won the fifth race.

Even those who didn't make it to the winners' circle Friday felt like celebrating. "For the last three years, we've been thinking, 'How are we going to make it?'" Deb Hilger said. "Now everyone is excited again.''

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