As his life grew short, Art Eaton thanked his doctors and nurses in the hospital for their kindness and care. His politeness and good humor made such an impression that one nurse asked his wife, Gretchen, where she had found her husband of 33 years.
“Did you train him or did he come that way?” asked the nurse.
Gretchen Eaton described her husband as “one of the good guys.” He was content to settle business with a handshake or a promise in his many years as a horse breeder and land developer. His family started Eaton’s Ranch in Apple Valley, which closed in the early 1970s until Art repurchased it several years later. He offered horse boarding, sleigh rides and hay rides, and opened a restaurant and a Western store.
As the Twin Cities expanded, he sold off parts of the family ranch to create such Apple Valley neighborhoods as Palomino Hills, Timberwick and Saddle Ridge.
“A lot of other developers would try to get as many homes in there as possible,” said homebuilder Rick Kot of R.A. Kot Homes in Prior Lake. “His pieces were some of the first nicer developments in there.”
Sue Kennedy of New Prague, who was adopted by Eaton, met her father when she was picking out a horse at age 15 and later worked with him on the ranch and at Eaton’s Western Store. “He taught me to work hard every day and be grateful for the chance to work,” she said.
His work ethic kept him active into his 80s, despite being nearly blind and suffering from emphysema. His last outing before he died Oct. 28 at 87 was to Canterbury Park, his home away from home for 30 years. Even though their love of racing horses began as a hobby, Art and Gretchen Eaton would often go to the track at 5:30 a.m. to watch the horses in training. “Art always put the horse first,” said Randy Sampson, president and CEO at Canterbury Park. “He didn’t view it as only a business, as many others do.”
Sampson and Eaton competed head to head at Canterbury for several years with their horses Dot’s Moment and Samdanya. The horses often traded winning and placing. “If I was gonna get beat, I didn’t mind getting beaten by the Eatons. They were so well-liked and respected,” Sampson said.
Eaton was the type of breeder who never hesitated to give a horse a rest if it wasn’t running at full capacity, even though it netted him less money. When he died, he still had several retired racehorses on the farm. Rather than selling them as their racing career neared an end, Eaton tried to place them with trainers or “a good home with a 10-year-old girl fawning over them,” Gretchen Eaton said.
He was inducted into the Canterbury Hall of Fame in 2003. His horses ran at Canterbury, Chicago, Indiana, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and several East Coast tracks. Bella Notte became his superstar sprinter, earning close to $300,000. She even had a race named after her at Canterbury.
His love of horses took its toll on him. In 1992 he suffered a concussion from being kicked by a foal, permanently losing his sense of taste and smell as a result. Later he lost most of a finger after a stallion accidentally stepped on his hand. But Eaton felt the most pain when one of his horses would lose a foal. “You can quit or you can buck up,” Eaton said to Gretchen, but knowing how painful it was on him, she told him that he should have been a lawyer.
He was preceded in death by his parents and a sister, Maxine. He is survived by his wife, three children — Sue Kennedy of New Prague, Todd Eaton of Cannon Falls and Barbara Eaton of San Diego — and six granddaughters.
Services have been held.