Sitting in his small, subterranean room at Canterbury Park, Cole Buxbaum pulled a bright blue and white top from a plastic bag stuffed with jockey silks. “I’ve gone through two of these already,” he said Tuesday morning, three days before the Shakopee track’s opening night. “And I’ve got another big bag coming over.”
In preparation for Friday’s eight-race card, Buxbaum was busy cataloging every stable’s colors in a handwritten ledger, then organizing them by number on walls covered with hundreds of hooks. Back in the racing office, program coordinator Peggy Davis handled paperwork for nearly 900 horses already on the grounds. Stall man Andrew Vold — the front-desk clerk of the stable area — got thoroughbreds settled into their summer homes, and on the other side of the track, Justin Johnson tested all 175 wagering terminals to make sure they were ready for the expected crush of fans.
All of them have been buzzing for the past few weeks, rousing Canterbury from its winter slumber. From the end of the racing season in September to its renewal in May, traffic slows to a trickle in the grandstand — which stays open year-round for simulcast wagering and occasional events — and the stable area shuts down.
Many of those who work with the horses and horsemen disperse to winter race meets in such places as Phoenix and Tampa. They began migrating back to Minnesota in April to ready Canterbury for a 67-day season. While it’s always a race against time to be ready for opening day, it was even harder this year, with the schedule starting two weeks earlier to coincide with Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.
That didn’t dampen the first-day-of-school feeling last week, as many who work at Canterbury year after year renewed acquaintances while rushing toward Friday’s starting bell.
“I think [trainer] Joel Berndt put it best,” Vold said. “He called it ‘Canterbury hell week.’ There’s a lot of stuff going on, with everybody moving in. But everyone’s so excited to get going.”
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Canterbury opened the stable area on April 17. Since then, horse vans have arrived at a steady pace, bringing the earliest arrivals among the 1,600 horses expected to fill the barns at the season’s peak.
Some of the work started before then. The main track surface must be groomed and ready for horses to run on, and any necessary repairs must be made to barns and dormitories. Palma Enterprises, which supplies the feed and bedding for all those horses, also prepares well in advance.
Joe Palma scurried around the stable area last week, delivering oats, hay and wood shavings from a building near the barns. Palma started bringing 22-ton truckloads of hay to Canterbury last September, and semis have been unloading pallets of horse feed. It’s exhausting work, but he seemed energized by the start of Canterbury’s 31st summer of racing.
“I thrive on this,” said Palma, whose building was stacked to the rafters with fuel for racehorses. “All the running around, all the pressure, seeing people you’ve been doing business with for I don’t know how long. I love it.”
Palma has his preseason preparations down to a science, having done it every year since the track opened in 1985. In places such as the racing office and the jockeys’ room, others have developed similar routines after returning to Canterbury every summer for two or three decades.
Buxbaum has worked there on and off since 1995, in a variety of jobs. Last week, he was helping out with mowing, barn maintenance and getting young horses accustomed to the starting gate. His biggest job, though, is organizing the silks.
Before every race day, the silks for each entry in each race must be hung on a rack where jockeys can quickly find them. There is no room for error, making his prep work essential. Buxbaum has his own system for numbering and arranging the silks, including the old-school touch of writing everything by hand in enormous ledgers.
He also has to order several five-gallon buckets of laundry soap. As busy as it is before the meet, it will get busier Friday, when he will be washing those silks, saddle cloths and arm numbers to keep them sparkling before every race.
“This is my third year doing this,” said Buxbaum, who lives in the dormitories above the stables. “Now, I know where a lot of [the silks] are by memory. You get to where you memorize the colors, or the numbers.
“I’ve got to stay on top of it this week, because they’re really flooding in now. But I’m always glad to come back to Canterbury. It’s a little hectic for the first few days, but it’s fun.”
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Even with the season starting Friday, some workers were just arriving last week. Mark Anderson — who oversees the jockeys’ room, serves as clerk of scales and takes entries for the races — is a jockey agent at Turf Paradise in Phoenix. Its season wraps up this week, so he got to Shakopee on Monday and jumped right into his Canterbury duties on Tuesday.
While he accepted entries for Friday’s races, Davis filed registration certificates for each horse on the grounds and entered its information into Canterbury’s computer system. She also collected the silks from the owners and recorded each stable’s colors for the daily racing programs.
Down the hall, Vold sat across from a map of the stable area. He has one of the trickiest preseason jobs: assigning barn space to each trainer. Vold expects all 1,600 stalls and 180 dorm rooms to be filled, and like any good accommodations manager, he tries to make sure every guest is satisfied.
Vold contacted trainers two weeks ago to ask their preferences. In addition to making sure everything is in good order, he tries to circumvent problems, such as not putting two trainers who don’t get along in the same barn.
“A week ago, we were getting 100 horses a day coming in, so it was very hectic,” he said. “It’s like putting a puzzle together. You’re dealing with 60 different trainers, and they all have things they want. My goal is to make everybody happy.”
Being part of all the behind-the-scenes activity, Davis said, is “like being backstage at the theater.” Friday, when the curtain rises on a new season, many workers said they will feel as big a rush as the racing fans.
Johnson, Canterbury’s assistant tote manager, has been counting the days on a whiteboard in his shop. Two months ago, he began preparing 119 tote machines that had been dormant since last September. Like much of Canterbury Park, he said, they had been asleep for eight months.
“Now, they’re coming back to life,” Johnson said. “This is when reality starts to kick in. We’re almost ready to go. And we’re really excited for the season to start.”