Canterbury Park was bigger this summer, now it wants to be better

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 16, 2013 - 1:35 AM

Canterbury Park achieved its goal of bigger fields; next up, attracting better horses.

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Heliskier (6) beat Desert Alley(1) at Canterbury Park earlier this month.

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By most measures, Mac Robertson enjoyed another stellar summer at Canterbury Park. As the Shakopee track ended its 69-day racing season Saturday, he already had wrapped up his ninth consecutive training title, and he had set a track record for the most purse money won in a single season.

Robertson, though, did not visit the winner’s circle as frequently as he has in his best seasons — and given what that meant for the track, it didn’t bother him in the least. “It definitely got tougher to win this year,” said Robertson, who won two races Saturday to finish with 51 victories. “That’s not necessarily good for me. But the more competitive it gets, that’s good for the track and for racing.”

Canterbury attracted more horses, more wagering, more spectators and more out-of-state interest in the second year of its $75 million, 10-year purse enhancement agreement with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. Each of the 10 races on Saturday’s final card included a hefty field of 10 or more horses, and an announced 12,160 fans turned out for the finale of Canterbury’s longest season since 2006.

The track’s average attendance of 6,656 and average live-racing handle of $546,532 were the highest since its reopening in 1995. It showed increases over last year in all handle categories — including a 32 percent spike in out-of-state betting on Canterbury races — and saw average total handle rise 16 percent to $687,856 per day. A capacity crowd of 1,594 horses pushed average field size to 8.36, the largest since 2003.

Canterbury Park President Randy Sampson said the track will offer at least 69 days of racing next year, when purses are scheduled to increase again. While he was pleased with the quantity of horses this summer, he hopes to see further upgrades in the quality as more horsemen learn about Canterbury’s reputation and rising purses.

“I’d say the meet was a success on pretty much all counts,” Sampson said. “We had a lot more horses and bigger fields, which was our No. 1 priority. And the quality was better, but we didn’t get as many new, good stables as we hoped for.

“We knew it would be hard to recruit a lot of new top stables, but we got a few, and we hope over time that will continue to pick up. We took a major step this year, and I think we’ll take another next year.”

Robertson won a Canterbury-record $1,340,429 in purses and 20 more races than Bernell Rhone and Mike Biehler, who tied for second with 31 victories each. Dean Butler withstood a late charge from Alex Canchari to win his fourth jockey title at Canterbury, with 67 victories to Canchari’s 65.

One of the new, high-quality stables — Midwest Thoroughbreds, which has led the nation in victories in each of the past three years — won the owners’ title with 28 victories. Heliskier was named Horse of the Year for the second consecutive season, joining Hoist Her Flag (1987, 1989) as Canterbury’s only two-time winner of the award.

The purse-enhancement agreement provided $5.3 million to the purse fund this season, pushing purses to nearly double what they were in 2011. Canterbury officials expected the extra money would lure more horses and that the larger fields would stimulate more wagering. Purses are scheduled to increase again next year, with $5.84 million coming from the tribal agreement.

Next week, Sampson will meet with horsemen to discuss how the 2014 season will look. He anticipates it will extend into mid-September again, while maintaining the Thursday through Sunday schedule and usual post times.

Robertson is thinking ahead, too. He said he has had calls from owners who have horses with big-name trainers at prominent tracks, who want to race at Canterbury next summer. That, he said, is another positive sign.

“They’re asking me to look for horses for them, to buy or claim for next year,” he said. “These people aren’t looking for $5,000 horses. They buy good horses. Over the next two or three years, I think the racing here will get better and better.”

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