Canterbury Park's season was shorter than usual, trimmed from 65 days to 53 because of the pandemic. Government restrictions on attendance left the grandstand practically empty. Masks became mandatory equipment, and temperature checks part of the daily routine.
It was a strange season, to be sure. But when it ended Thursday, Canterbury officials were grateful that it happened at all. The meet was altered but not ruined by COVID-19, closing with a 13-race card that drew a total handle of $1.98 million.
A huge increase in out-of-state betting pushed total wagering to $68 million for the season. That represented a $27 million increase over last year and crushed the Canterbury Park record of $48 million, set in 2018. Many horse owners and trainers remained loyal to the Shakopee track despite a 30% reduction in purses and a delayed season opener, keeping field sizes about the same as last year.
Canterbury Park President Randy Sampson said the track will take a financial hit of several million dollars from a three-month closure of the card room and steep declines in live-racing admissions and concessions. But it ended the summer with a "sustainable" level of business, he added, enough to ensure Canterbury can conduct a 65- to 70-day season in 2021.
"In some ways, it was positive," Sampson said. "People rose to the challenge to put a plan together. We got through the season with no problems, and everyone cooperated.
"The lack of crowds is something I hope we never see again. That's what I enjoy the most about Canterbury, people coming out and having a good time. This season wasn't what we're used to, and it was stressful and challenging. But there were some real successes, and some things we learned that we can build on."
In March, Sampson wasn't sure there would be a live racing season. Several tracks around the country suspended racing or stopped allowing spectators as the pandemic spread.
Canterbury postponed the start of the season from May 15 to June 10 and cut 12 racing days. It instituted strict disease-prevention protocols. The track ditched the usual Thursday through Sunday schedule, opting to race Mondays through Thursdays, when there was less competition for out-of-state wagering dollars.
The season was expected to start without spectators, but Gov. Tim Walz gave Canterbury permission to host 250 fans for its opener. Attendance was limited by government mandates throughout the season, with a cap of 750 per day for most of the summer.
Andrew Offerman, the track's vice president of racing operations, said there were only two known positive tests for COVID-19 among people participating in the race meet. The Minnesota Racing Commission enforced the safety protocols by issuing fines to violators, helping to ensure the season never came close to being shut down.
"If in June you had told me we would get through the season without a significant interruption, I would have been very happy," Offerman said. "The staff, horsemen, jockeys, everyone did what they needed to do to stay safe."
Canterbury is known for its large, lively crowds, drawing an average of 6,500 fans per day in a normal season. While the track didn't have its usual ambience, the handful of people on the grounds bet $69,636 per day, more than expected. Canterbury also offered walk-up curbside wagering for the first time, an option that produced about 10% of daily handle.
The cash really poured in from out-of-state horseplayers. Their wagering increased 168% to $1.2 million per day, and the highest daily total of the meet — $2.6 million, on Sept. 16 — was Canterbury's best single-day wagering haul in 11 years. Out-of-state wagering totaled $64.7 million, more than twice the $30 million bet last year.
Though Canterbury and the purse fund receive a much smaller percentage of out-of-state wagers than on-track wagers, the spike in non-Minnesota betting helped soften the financial blow.
"It wasn't the same without those big crowds of 15,000 or 20,000," Sampson said. "But the biggest thing we learned from this is if we race on weekdays at 4:30, we can more than double our out-of-state handle."
With the card club reopened, Sampson said Canterbury is doing better financially than he anticipated. He cautioned that the business "still has a long way to go" to get back to normal, but Offerman said there has been no significant harm to the purse fund, which should allow purses to return to the usual levels next summer.
If more fans are allowed in 2021, Canterbury officials expect to create a hybrid schedule that tries to maximize attendance on some days and out-of-state wagering on others. As they continue to deal with the fallout of the pandemic, they feel fortunate for what they were able to achieve in a very unusual summer.
"This year was so different," Offerman said. "I'm appreciative we got to run a racing season with some people here. And I hope when they come back next year, we're able to give them something much closer to what they're used to.
"More than anything, I'm grateful we had a season, one we can deem successful in some way. And I'm thankful everyone stayed safe and healthy."