The end of a year is a time for looking forward and looking back. Randy Sampson did some of both last week, as Canterbury Park marked the expiration of its landmark agreement with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.
The deal, which added about $70 million to Canterbury's purses over the past 11 years, ended last Saturday. Sampson, CEO of the Shakopee racetrack, spent a little time reminiscing about the benefits the partnership brought. But with Canterbury now free to pursue other sources of purse funds — perhaps sports wagering or other additional gaming — he quickly turned his vision toward the future.
The end of the deal didn't come as a surprise. Talks between Canterbury and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) had gone on for years, and the two sides were never able to reach a compromise.
With their official partnership now history, Canterbury will seek new ways to supplement its racing purses, resuming legislative efforts that were discontinued when the SMSC deal was struck in 2012.
"We're just starting to formulate a plan," Sampson said. "We haven't been active at the legislature for the past 10 years because of the agreement. Our goal right now is to talk to legislators about the importance of horse racing to Minnesota, not necessarily with any specific legislation or agenda, but to build better awareness about our industry.
"There is uncertainty and challenges moving forward. But there's excitement among our group as to what is next."
The money from the SMSC agreement helped push Canterbury's purses from $6.4 million in 2011 to $15.7 million last year, stabilizing the state's racing and breeding industry. About half the purses paid during last summer's 64-day season came from SMSC funds. As purses rose, so did wagering on Canterbury's races, which reached a Canterbury Park-record $97.6 million last year.
With less purse money available for this summer's meet, Canterbury will trim its season to 54 days. It will pay purses of about $200,000 per day, a small reduction from last year.
"We are proud of the assistance that we provided Canterbury Park and the horse industry in Minnesota," SMSC said in a statement. "Our relationship has been one of mutual respect and support, and we wish them the very best."
Before the SMSC agreement, Canterbury had a regular presence at the State Capitol, lobbying unsuccessfully for years for permission to allow slot machines at the track. The SMSC deal idled that effort for a decade, requiring Canterbury to end its pursuit of any additional gaming in exchange for $84 million in purse supplements and marketing payments.
The track now is assembling a new lobbying team to promote its interests before the legislature. The Minnesota Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents the track's horse owners and trainers, also will be involved. Executive director Mike Cronin said the group was proactive last summer, working to educate lawmakers about the state's racing industry.
"We're already lining up meetings with legislators," Cronin said. "We had a really good response last year for some of our benevolence programs, where both sides of the aisle were really supportive. We're in the game, getting to know more people and telling our story."
Sampson and Cronin both said they are open-minded on ways to supplement Canterbury's purses. There has been much speculation about sports wagering, which is certain to be discussed during the current legislative session.
It's unclear whether Canterbury and Running Aces, the harness track in Columbus, would be included in any bills. Last year, the state Senate sought to include them in sports wagering legislation, but the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association opposed it. Sampson also noted that sports wagering isn't likely to generate significant revenue for the tracks.
"The profit margins are slim," he said. "There isn't huge money in this for the operators or the state."
Sampson isn't expecting a solution to be found immediately, but he and other track officials are upbeat. Canterbury has begun a $15 million upgrade of its stable area, and he said the development of its land — including a 19,000-seat amphitheater set to open in 2024 —continues to revolve around live racing.
"We had a great 10 years with the [SMSC] partnership," he said. "But I'm optimistic about what's ahead."