As manager of the barns at Canterbury Park, Mark Stancato spends much of his day solving problems and dispensing information. During the past few weeks, though, he's been unable to answer the one question on the mind of every trainer, owner, groom and racing fan: Is the track going to close up shop Friday?
That question continued to cloud the air at the Shakopee racetrack Wednesday, with the threat of a government shutdown still looming over the state. While entries were being taken for Saturday's nine-race card, Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin ruled that oversight of horse racing is not a core government function, meaning Canterbury would have to close after Thursday night's races if the government shuts down.
But Canterbury and its horsemen have not given up, and they will get a hearing in Scott County District Court on Thursday for a temporary injunction that would keep the track open.
Horse racing is a business built on hope, a necessary quality in a game loaded with risk and uncertainty. Though many horsemen are worried about a possible shutdown, they continued with business as usual Wednesday, keeping faith that a last-minute solution will emerge.
"I've been asked about it many times a day, in two languages," Stancato said. "People are concerned. This is their whole world. But I'm telling them I think it'll be fine, and if it grinds to a halt, I think it'll come back quickly."
In Canterbury's track kitchen, on the clocker's stand and at the racing office, most conversations Wednesday revolved around the shutdown. If it happens, Canterbury could not continue racing, because the Minnesota Racing Commission -- which regulates the sport -- would close. But the commission is fully funded by the track and its horsemen, who have paid for its services through July.
Their attorneys argue that because no public funds are involved, the track should be allowed to stay open. Canterbury President Randy Sampson said he was shocked by Gearin's decision, which stated that her authority was limited to core government functions -- and declared racing was not among those. But the ruling grants the horsemen the right to appeal, which they will do.
Business as usual, unless ...
As trainers, owners and jockeys followed developments, they kept up usual routines. The track is continuing to take entries for the weekend's races, even though they might not happen, and horsemen were optimistic enough to fill Saturday's nine races with 68 horses. Stancato said no horsemen have left, though one that was due to arrive Monday is now waiting until the situation is resolved.
Stancato and Sampson both speculated that if the track shuts down, horsemen will wait it out through the weekend. But if it remains closed next week without any indication of when it might reopen, they would likely begin moving to other tracks.
If that happens, it is unlikely they would return, which could cause the rest of the season to be canceled. Mac Robertson, Canterbury's leading trainer the past six years, said it would cost $50,000 to move his best horses to other tracks -- and only six of his 26 employees would go with him. Some horses that wouldn't be competitive elsewhere would be idled, leaving their owners with no opportunity to cover their costs.
Cam Casby of Shakopee, who owns 16 horses stabled at Canterbury, said a shutdown could put her and other owners out of business.
"We're small-business people, and this could bankrupt some of us," she said. "I came here because of loyalty to the track. But if my horses have to leave, I couldn't afford to bring them back. With Canterbury's [low] purses, there would be no chance to make that money back.
"People are feeling nervous, defeated and angry. It's very disheartening that this many people can be held hostage because the government couldn't do its job in the time it had."
Lucrative weekend nears
Even a brief shutdown could be disastrous to Canterbury as well. The July 4 weekend is traditionally its biggest of the season, and it would be hard for the track to make up for the revenue it would lose if it is closed. Its 1,100 employees also would be out of work during a shutdown.
Sampson considered running two race cards Thursday: the regular evening card, plus the one scheduled for Friday evening. He decided the predicted hot weather would have made it too taxing to run 21 races. Besides, like others in the racing business, he is still clinging to the hope that things will work out in time to avoid a shutdown.
"Long shots win at the track every day," Sampson said. "We're not giving up. We know we're right; the money is there, and there is no reason for the state to shut us down. We're all trying to stay positive."