As the racing industry continues to struggle nationwide, most tracks would be happy to have the kind of season that Canterbury Park concluded on Saturday. The Shakopee track ended its 21st year with modest gains in attendance and total handle, as well as a significant bump up in out-of-state wagering on its races.
While Eric Halstrom appreciated those numbers, he already was thinking about how to boost them further next year. Halstrom, Canterbury’s vice president of racing operations, said the track’s rising purses — which will grow again in 2016 — are continuing to improve the quality of its racing and fuel a surge in Minnesota-bred horses. This year, well-known trainers Tom Amoss and Dallas Keen raised Canterbury’s profile, and an effort to attract Triple Crown winner American Pharoah drew national publicity.
The recipe won’t change much next year, according to Halstrom and track President Randy Sampson. But as the purses escalate, they said, so will Canterbury’s ambition. After closing the book on the 2015 season with an announced crowd of 9,180, they envision a future with more high-profile trainers, more Minnesota-breds and more grand ideas as they try to keep Canterbury on an upward trajectory.
“This year, our out-of-state handle is up  percent,’’ Halstrom said. “That’s a great number. If you can do that every year, it doesn’t take long before you’re starting to push at the tracks a level above you. We’re starting to do that.
“Can we do that again next year? I think the answer is, why not? It’s all a function of having that ball rolling in the right direction. If we can keep adding more top horsemen, I don’t know why we wouldn’t keep going up every year.’’
Announced attendance at Canterbury averaged 6,695 per day, a 5 percent increase over 2014, and total handle increased 5 percent to $716,585 per day. Out-of-state betting on Canterbury races shot up to $408,878 per day, reflecting increased wagering interest as the track continues to upgrade its racing product.
Purses rose to a Canterbury Park-record $14.2 million in the fourth year of a 10-year, $75 million purse-enhancement agreement with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. The deal will add $6.9 million to purses next year, an increase of 10 percent, and the purse fund also will be fattened by the increased wagering and an uptick in business at Canterbury’s card club. The purse-enhancement agreement continues to bolster the breeding industry, too, as Minnesota’s thoroughbred foal crop has tripled from its low-water mark in 2012.
The first horses from that baby boom began racing this summer, re-establishing a strong base of state-bred horses to fill Canterbury’s races in the future. Halstrom said new owners also are getting into the game. Those upward trends set Canterbury apart from tracks that are sinking or treading water — including Chicago’s Arlington Park and Lone Star Park in Dallas — which could help lure additional high-quality horses and trainers next year.
Amoss and Keen were among Canterbury’s top trainers this season despite having the fewest starts of anyone in the top 10. Keen raved about his experience in Shakopee, and leading jockey Leandro Goncalves — a multiple graded-stakes winner who will ride in Kentucky this fall — said his summer at Canterbury was “the best time I ever had.’’ Those impressions matter, Halstrom said, because it establishes Canterbury as a viable home for high-level horsemen.
As Canterbury looks to the future, he will begin recruiting more of them starting next week. Track officials will brainstorm ideas for new, high-profile events in the summers to come, and they are expanding the track’s event and catering business to strengthen the bottom line. While the track has suspended plans to relocate its stable area and develop an entertainment complex on that site, it is preparing to develop housing and a business park on Canterbury’s 200 acres of open land.
“This was, by all counts, a fantastic racing season, and I’m sad to see it end,’’ Sampson said. “We’re continuing to go in the right direction. But we need to continue to improve, so we can be one of the premier tracks in the summer within the next few years.’’