With more than 40 racehorses in his barn, Tony Rengstorf has plenty of chores to handle every day at Canterbury Park. He's not going to miss the one he just crossed off the list.
"We don't have to disinfect the pitchforks any more," the trainer said. "It's good to be getting back to normal."
That's the unofficial motto for Canterbury Park's 27th season, which begins Tuesday with nine thoroughbred races. Following the most unusual year in its history, the Shakopee track is getting back to its pre-COVID self: a 65-day season, starting in mid-May, with large crowds welcome. And a lot less Lysol and Pine-Sol in barns like Rengstorf's, which went through gallons of the stuff last year to satisfy COVID sanitation protocols.
Some things will return slowly. The track will limit attendance to 2,500 before gradually expanding, and popular draws such as corgi and bulldog races have been pushed to later in the summer. At least one staple — Friday and Saturday racing — won't return at all, as Canterbury moves to a hybrid schedule designed to maximize out-of-state wagering on its races while reopening to a live audience.
At this time last year, track officials were brainstorming ways to hold a live racing season in the midst of the pandemic. After making it through a surreal summer, normal never felt so good.
"There's just a different feeling leading up to this meet," said Andrew Offerman, Canterbury's vice president of racing. "When you know something can be ripped away from you, you tend to value and treasure it more.
"There's a sense of relief as we start to return to normal, but it seems like there's a new sense of gratitude and appreciation, too."
Canterbury starts the season with nine-race cards at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Sunday afternoon racing begins May 30. The track drew robust fields for opening week, with an average of 9.2 entries per race.
The weekday evening racing is a holdover from last year, when the pandemic forced Canterbury to start the season a month late, cut 12 days from the schedule and limit attendance to 1,000 or fewer. Facing steep losses in on-track revenue, Canterbury officials shifted from a Thursday-Sunday schedule to a Monday-Thursday slate, hoping to bring in more simulcast wagering by running when there was less competition from other tracks.
It worked better than they expected. Canterbury took in a track-record $68 million in total handle, thanks to a 116% rise in out-of-state wagering. The strategy this year is to retain those simulcast players with weeknight races, while resuming the Sunday afternoon cards that bring large crowds of on-track customers.
"The number one question we get is, 'Are the corgis and bulldogs coming back?' " said John Groen, Canterbury's vice president of marketing. "We intend to bring back a lot of those fan favorites. We're all really excited to get people back in."
While many midmajor tracks are struggling to attract horses, Canterbury has 1,100 horses on the grounds, with another 400 or so yet to arrive. Most of Canterbury's regular trainers have returned, supplemented by six to eight new trainers, many from New Mexico. Several owners also are sending horses to Canterbury for the first time.
Offerman recruited aggressively during the winter, and the weeknight races turned out to be an unexpected marketing tool.
"The national exposure we got with the schedule change really served us well," Offerman said. "People who weren't familiar with us got to know more about us and took notice. That brand awareness is really important."
Groen isn't entirely sure what to expect as Canterbury slides back toward normal times. A shortage of workers — and uncertainty about how comfortable people will be in crowded settings — means the track will move cautiously. Groen expects to raise capacity to 5,000 on Memorial Day weekend, with more increases as the season progresses.
He hopes fans will be as enthusiastic as Rengstorf. Last year, the trainer was willing to do whatever it took to resume racing at Canterbury, including spraying his manure shovels with disinfectant.
Like Offerman, he enters this season filled with gratitude, and not just because he has one fewer chore.
"Last year was tough, but Canterbury did an amazing job," Rengstorf said. "I was so thankful to be racing.
"Now it's a new year. Purses are up, there are some new faces and we're going to get the fans back. I'm very excited."