Barry Butzow didn’t really miss the noise. There was something peaceful, almost reverent, about watching Min Freya charge down the Canterbury Park stretch in near silence.
The victory celebration, though, left something to be desired. After the filly won the first race of Wednesday’s season opener, Butzow, her co-owner, fielded one jubilant elbow-bump in a sparsely populated winner’s circle.
His walk to cash his winning ticket was equally subdued, with only about 50 people scattered around the track apron and no one lined up at the window.
“Usually after you win a race, there are all kinds of people patting you on the back,’’ said Butzow, an Eden Prairie resident and longtime horse owner. “Watching that race, it kind of felt like a preseason game. It was weird. It’s the first time I’ve seen anything like it.’’
Everyone else at the Shakopee track could say the same. Under normal circumstances, Min Freya would have set off a roar from thousands of people lounging beneath blue skies and abundant sun. The opener would have been on a weekend, not on a Wednesday afternoon, with live music and crowded bars and regulars marking up the Daily Racing Form.
The pandemic stripped out that ambience, if not the joy. Or the money, for that matter. The nine-race opening-day card pulled in a total handle of $1,635,940, with nearly all of it coming via out-of-state simulcast players.
“It was eerie to see so few people in the facility,’’ said Andrew Offerman, Canterbury’s vice president of racing operations. “I’m relieved to get to this point, where we were able to welcome owners and a limited number of patrons.
‘‘But it doesn’t really feel celebratory, because of the number of people who can’t be here.’’
Until recently, when a handful of tracks began allowing limited spectators, horse racing continued in venues emptied out by COVID-19 shutdowns. With its audience restricted to TV viewers and online gamblers, it even earned a new name: studio racing.
Many tracks aren’t even allowing horse owners to be on-site. Under Canterbury’s guidelines, owners can come in on days when their horses race, and the most recent state regulations permit up to 250 fans to attend as well.
Wednesday, Butzow and other owners had the run of the first floor, and the invited spectators got the third floor.
Social distancing wasn’t an issue. Canterbury’s cavernous grandstand was so empty that track announcer Paul Allen’s voice echoed off the canopies. When the gates sprang open for the first race, the only sound on the track apron came from one person applauding.
Trainer Valorie Lund ran last spring at Oaklawn Park, which closed to spectators in March. She had become used to fan-free racing, but she didn’t like it any better in Minnesota than she did in Arkansas.
“I love to run. I love racing,’’ said Lund, who trains several of Butzow’s horses. “But it isn’t the same without the fans. I really miss that atmosphere. I think everybody does.’’
The pandemic left its mark in other ways, too. Canterbury introduced walk-up wagering at a ticket office outside the fence, allowing fans to bet on races they could not attend. Several people were in line when the self-service terminals opened at 11:30 a.m., and Offerman said the $17,000 in wagers was a solid start.
TV monitors around the complex flashed messages reminding people not to touch their faces and to wash their hands frequently. Bugler Lynn Deichert, part of Canterbury’s daily pageantry, wasn’t there to call the horses to the post; instead, he recorded a version to be played over the loudspeaker.
As the evening wore on, Canterbury began to feel more like its old self. The Paddock Pub filled with laughter. The victors included long shot College Queen, who won the second race at 31-1, and Polar Xpress, who opened the quarter horse season by capturing the $20,000 Cam Casby Stakes.
Butzow ended up cashing a few more tickets by the end of the night, with two third-place finishes to go with Min Freya’s win.
“To me, racing is about the excitement and the camaraderie, more than the money,’’ he said. “But this is a pretty cool way to start.’’