After Bourbon County won the 10,000 Lakes Stakes for the second consecutive year, his jubilant owner, Scott Rake, bounded into the winner’s circle. “Never a doubt,” Rake said, as his six-year-old gelding posed under the lights at Canterbury Park on opening night.
Though Rake exuded confidence in his stable star, he won’t be taking anything for granted during Canterbury’s 69-day season. With the Shakopee track’s purses rising to a record $14.2 million — leading Minnesota owners and breeders to invest in higher quality horses — Rake predicted it will be harder than ever to get to the winner’s circle. That made him particularly grateful Friday, when a crowd of 7,439 kicked off Canterbury’s 22nd season since it reopened in 1995.
Bourbon County took off when jockey Alex Canchari showed him the whip, bursting past Hold for More — Canterbury’s horse of the year in 2015 — and stakes winner A P Is Loose to take the winner’s share of the $60,000 purse. He wasn’t the only one to cash in. The eight-race card attracted $840,999 in wagers, a 33 percent increase over last year’s opening day.
The uptick in handle, driven by Canterbury’s much-discussed reduction in takeout, included $243,802 bet on track. While the takeout reduction means a better return for those who pick winners, Rake said it won’t be as simple for horsemen to reap a share of Canterbury’s richer purses.
“By no means are we going to be resting on our laurels,” said Rake, whose filly Sky and Sea — the track’s horse of the year in 2014 — will run Saturday in the Lady Slipper Stakes. “The money we’ve earned at Canterbury, we’ve reinvested in better stock. We’re going to continue to improve, because that’s the only way you’re going to succeed here.
“This isn’t a small Midwestern track any more. This is a very sophisticated, professional operation. The owners and breeders are taking it seriously, and if you want to win, you’re going to have to up your game.”
Some things, like a Bourbon County victory, felt familiar Friday. Families thronged the track apron on a mild evening, listening to a live band. Jockey Dean Butler won three races, and trainer Francisco Bravo had his first two victories of the meet before a vanilla moon had risen above the tote board.
Canterbury also unveiled lots of new bells and whistles. It televised its races in high definition for the first time. The infield ponds have been drained and will be moved to make way for a festival and concert grounds. Friday’s fourth race inaugurated the new Turf Top Five wager, which rewards bettors who pick the first five finishers in order in Canterbury’s turf races, and horses sprang from a new starting gate.
Canterbury’s purses have risen steadily since 2012, supplemented by money from a 10-year purse-enhancement deal with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. The track now is paying more than twice the $6.4 million it awarded in purses in 2011. While Bravo said that has made it much harder to win, he isn’t complaining.
“It’s like a different game compared to a few years ago,” Bravo said. “It keeps getting tougher, and that’s good. What’s happened out here is a dream come true.”
Eric Halstrom, Canterbury’s vice president of racing operations, said the track received 2,200 applications for its 1,550 stalls. There were about 1,100 horses on the grounds as of Friday. A few large stables have yet to arrive, and Halstrom said officials who oversee the stable area are a little nervous about where they will put everyone — a problem few tracks have.
The 10,000 Lakes Stakes showcased several Canterbury champions of recent years, including Bourbon County, Hold for More, A P Is Loose and Speed is Life. Rake predicted that this year’s group of Minnesota-bred 3-year-olds will yield “superstars” by the time the Festival of Champions for state-bred horses rolls around in August.
That’s a far cry from a few years ago, when he recalled horsemen’s groups discussing plans to shut down operations.
“Everyone is dedicated to not stopping where we’re at,” Rake said. “We want to keep improving.”