As much as it pained him, Dale Schenian felt he had no choice. Once Irwin Jacobs bought Canterbury Downs, which had sat empty for 15 months after closing in 1992, Schenian sold the 80-acre farm in Dakota County where he bred and raised racehorses.
“I said, ‘Well, it’s over,’ ” Schenian recalled, noting the famed corporate raider’s reputation for liquidating companies. “I thought [Jacobs] would probably just develop the land.”
Schenian was never so happy to be so wrong. Three months after Jacobs purchased the Shakopee track in 1994, Curt and Randy Sampson engineered a deal to save it — and with it, the racing industry in Minnesota. With the help of Schenian and hundreds more of the state’s horsemen, they gave the track a second life as Canterbury Park, a revival that continues into its 25th season Friday.
Randy Sampson, still the track’s CEO, guided the effort to get Canterbury reopened and on a path to long-term viability. His father, Curt Sampson, risked a chunk of his personal wealth to provide the seed money.
Prudent management and the continued partnership between the track and its horsemen have kept it working. This summer’s 66-day racing season will pay purses of approximately $14.3 million, and Schenian proudly notes Canterbury “never had to borrow a nickel” since live racing resumed in 1995.
“We’ve always been able to find ways to survive,” Randy Sampson said. “When [Canterbury] closed, it was heartbreaking. It was such a shame to see that beautiful place sitting there empty, with weeds growing everywhere.
“For me, the most gratifying thing is hearing people say, ‘We love coming here. Thank you for bringing it back.’ ”
Gamble pays off
Built for $85 million in 1985, Canterbury Downs hosted huge crowds and high-end racing during its first two seasons. Financial troubles, mismanagement and competition from new tribal casinos sent it into a swift tailspin.
With attendance and handle plummeting, Ladbroke Racing Corporation shut down the track after the 1992 season. Randy Sampson, who was overseeing his family’s racehorse operation, and Terry McWilliams, the track’s former general manager, still believed racing could work in Minnesota with a shortened season. They assembled a business plan and shopped it to owners of other tracks around the country, with no takers.
Randy Sampson vowed to keep trying — and found his primary investor at the root of the family tree.
“Terry and I weren’t getting anywhere,” he said. “We’d gone through everybody else, so I thought we might as well show Curt the plan. After he went through it, he looked at me and Terry and said, ‘Looks like we might be buying a racetrack.’ ”
Jacobs beat them to the punch. The businessman — who recently died by suicide after killing his wife, Alexandra — snapped up Canterbury for $7 million in January 1994, with thoughts of turning it into an auto racing track, a convention center or a boat storage facility.
Randy Sampson called him to make the case that the track should be used for its original purpose. Jacobs quickly agreed, selling it in March to the Sampsons and Schenian for $8 million, plus unpaid taxes.
Curt Sampson said he sold most of his securities to contribute $2 million to the down payment. Schenian put in $1 million. Sampson also signed for a $5 million line of credit, leaving him responsible if a public stock offering in late 1994 did not raise enough funds to pay off the balance.
“I could have lost it all,” he said. “But it looked like we had a shot to make it work. And right away, it did. I never lost a minute of sleep.”
The dream continues
The state’s racing community stepped up when Canterbury went public, buying $8 million in stock to leave the track debt-free for the first time in its history. Horsemen who had feuded bitterly with previous track managers pitched in, too, agreeing to shorter seasons with small purses to help Canterbury regain its footing when live racing resumed in 1995.
That cooperative spirit kept the track afloat when voters failed to approve off-track betting, once viewed as Canterbury’s only hope for survival. Undaunted, the track’s management adopted the model that endures to this day: marketing horse racing as family-friendly entertainment, with music, theme nights and promotions such as wiener dog races.
“It was disappointing not to get OTB,” Schenian said. “But building a place where you can take your family and have a fun day at a good value, that’s where the growth was going to come from.”
Canterbury has continued to adapt. Randy Sampson said adding a card club in 2000 and signing a 10-year, $71 million purse enhancement agreement with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in 2012 were milestones in keeping the track and the racing industry healthy.
Development is happening, too, though not in the way Schenian expected 25 years ago. A $400 million project is underway to build “Canterbury Commons,” putting homes, offices and retail space on some of the track’s unused land.
If racing had not been resuscitated, a visit to that corner of Shakopee today might have summoned wistful memories of a sport erased from Minnesota’s summers. Yet Canterbury Park’s heart is still beating, a testament to the stubbornness of three horse owners unwilling to give up.
“When we bought it, the general public and even some of the horsepeople were saying, ‘Well, these guys from Hector [Minn.] seem nice,” Randy Sampson said. “We wish them the best, but good luck with that one.
“Most people didn’t see how we could make it work. But it’s worked out as well as we could have hoped.’’