He could wipe the mud off his face, but not the smile. As Ry Eikleberry hopped off Yodelin’ Angel in the Canterbury Park winner’s circle — fresh off an opening-night victory in Friday’s second race — the jockey beamed at the fans who had gathered to welcome him back to the Shakopee track.
Eikleberry won 200 races at Canterbury Park from 2008 through 2011. He met his wife, Jilique, there in 2007. But he spent last year riding in New Mexico, where he could make more money, and pining for a reason to return.
He got it when Canterbury’s purses skyrocketed, thanks to a 10-year deal with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community that will pour $75 million into the purse fund. Friday’s rain turned the track to slop, but it couldn’t dampen the mood of Minnesota’s horse owners and breeders — and the trainers and riders who make Canterbury their summer home — as they celebrated the start of a season that has them feeling rejuvenated.
Friday’s nine-race card kicked off a 69-day racing season, Canterbury’s longest since 2006. A crowd announced at 6,478 wagered $216,679, with another $239,242 wagered off track on Canterbury’s races.
Eikleberry won the riding title at New Mexico’s Sunland Park last winter, with 55 victories and earnings of more than $1 million. The deal Canterbury signed last June will push purses to about $12 million this summer, twice what it paid two years ago — and more than enough to lure Eikleberry back.
“This feels like home,’’ he said. “I wanted to ride here last year, but my wife and I wanted a place to have a future. And we weren’t sure we had that here. Now this place has a very bright future. I’m very excited to be back.’’
Canterbury Park President Randy Sampson said he heard the same sentiment from fans and horsemen. His only complaint was the weather, which he speculated was the main reason that attendance and handle were lower than last year’s season opener.
The wet, cool conditions, including a wind that whipped through the flags atop the new 200-foot-long digital tote board, kept most fans indoors, at least between races. But when the tractor pulled the starting gate into place for the first race of the evening card, dozens poured out onto the track apron and lined up along the fence.
The crowd included Canterbury’s usual mix: families with strollers, young people ready to party, and longtime horseplayers poring over their Daily Racing Forms. Matthew Rottmann and Mike Bravo crossed a couple of those categories. The friends from Shakopee come to Canterbury a couple of times a week, and Friday, they brought their sons — 5-year-old Gage Rottmann and 2-year-old Jack Bravo — to enjoy the atmosphere of opening night.
As the boys played near the winner’s circle, the dads were anticipating a racing season made more entertaining — and perhaps more lucrative — by the increased purses. Both said they are likely to bet more at the track this summer, expecting that the richer purses will lead to higher-caliber racing and larger payoffs.
“The quality of horses is going to be better, and the fields will be bigger,’’ Rottmann said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.’’
The deal with the tribe that operates Mystic Lake Casino will provide Canterbury with $600,000 for marketing this year, which helped pay for the new tote board and a 25-foot-long video screen next to the paddock. The casino’s logo is prominently displayed on the tote board and the winner’s circle, and the track — which used to consider the casino a competitor — now offers a trolley to shuttle gamblers down the road to Mystic Lake.
Other signs of the changes wrought by the deal were reflected in the optimism of Minnesota horsemen.“The Minnesota-breds are better this year, and they’re going to get far better because of the purses,” said Jeff Hilger of Stillwater and Bleu Valley Farm. “This is the first time in 25 years I’ve had something to be excited about in the future.”