At 12:01 a.m. Friday, Randy Sampson sat glumly in the card club at Canterbury Park, watching the government-ordered closure that still didn't seem quite real. As dealers put away the cards and chips and players formed long lines at the cashier's windows, the president of the Shakopee racetrack accepted condolences and good wishes from many regulars, who were as upset as he was that the government shutdown had shuttered Canterbury.
The track shut out the lights at about 11:30 p.m., shortly after I Am That Hero ended the 12-race card by winning the Canterbury Park Quarter Horse Derby. The tote board and video screen continued to glow in the night, instructing fans to check the track's web site for updates on the shutdown. In the track's infield, a message appeared on another video board: Due to the Government Shutdown, Canterbury Park is Temporarily Closed.
A big crowd for a Thursday -- 8,585 people -- showed up on a sweltering night to bet on the races and gamble in Canterbury's card club. Friday's race card had not been officially canceled yet, as track officials hoped for a last-second resolution. They will go to court again Friday morning to try and convince Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin that Canterbury should be allowed to stay open; if they don't get a favorable decision early in the day, the track will remain dark Friday.
Sampson hoped to find a way to keep the card club open and continue taking wagers on simulcast racing from other states. That didn't happen, and as the Talking Heads song "Road to Nowhere'' played on the club's sound system, he lamented a shutdown that he said would cost the track more than $1 million in lost revenue per week.
"It's just depressing," he said. "We were still holding out hope [Thursday] morning. By about 3 or 4 o'clock, when nothing had happened, I started feeling like it was really going to happen. By about 6, we knew it was too late to avoid it. We just have to hope it doesn't last long."
The shutdown was the primary topic of conversation Thursday. Some of the hundreds of TVs in the grandstand were tuned to the news, rather than to the races, as people tried to get updates. Black humor ruled, too, as losing bettors made jokes about giving the track as much money as they could before the shutdown.
Sampson was getting plenty of hugs from his employees, many of whom are deeply worried about how long they will be without paychecks. Char Besser, a well-known bartender on the track's second floor, said she was getting more tips than usual from regulars concerned about her loss of income. She also was getting plenty of venting from people upset with the shutdown.
"People are really ticked off," she said. "All night long, they were saying it's time to clean house. They're ticked off that the government didn't do their jobs."
When it became clear that a shutdown was a serious possibility, Canterbury took two quarter horse stakes races from the weekend race cards and ran them Thursday. July 4 is the track's biggest weekend of the season, and Sampson is steeling himself for the possibility that those race days might not happen. He said the track will reschedule its July 3 fireworks display if necessary.
The track also is continuing to take entries for the weekend's races so it will be ready to hold races as soon as the shutdown ends. Canterbury spokesman Jeff Maday said the track will be able to resume operations within 24 hours of a resolution.
Kelvin Childers, past president of the Minnesota Quarter Horse Racing Association, said horsemen are still in disbelief that the shutdown had occurred.
"Nobody can believe it," he said. "Until the Friday card gets cancelled, I don't think it's going to sink in. Even though they moved our two stakes races to Thursday, everyone expected that the weekend was still going to go on. We all just hope the shutdown doesn't last long."
The bar didn't close until 1 a.m., so a few people lingered at the track during the first hour of the shutdown. Some tried to give Sampson a little encouragement, and he did the same. As one of them shook his hand, he said, "We'll be back in a couple of days."