By Canterbury Park standards, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend drew a relatively modest crowd. Andrew Offerman estimated about 4,500 people came to the Shakopee track for an eight-race card, marking the return of weekend afternoon racing after a one-year absence.
To Offerman, the track's vice president of racing, it was more about the atmosphere than the turnstile count. That day still stood out to him four months later, as he reflected on the 65-day Canterbury season that ended Thursday.
"I remember standing outside for the second race that day, and you could feel the crowd's excitement when the horses came down the stretch,'' he said. "Compare that to 2020, when there were maybe 100 people on the apron. It was an emotional moment. Things felt right again.''
Offerman described this season as the best of both worlds, as Canterbury welcomed back fans while continuing gains in out-of-state wagering. The meet drew total wagering of $90.9 million, breaking the Canterbury Park record of $68.4 million set last year. The vast majority came from out-of-state betting, which increased 27.4% over 2020.
Last season, when the pandemic limited attendance to no more than a few hundred per day, Canterbury moved its race schedule to Monday-Thursday and saw a 116% increase in out-of-state wagering on its races. Track officials adopted a hybrid schedule this year, hoping to keep those out-of-state dollars flowing with weekday evening racing while reintroducing the Sunday afternoon cards popular with local fans.
The result: a sharp increase in on-track wagering, coupled with another gain in out-of-state betting. Average daily handle was up 8.4% over last summer, with an 87.1% jump in daily on-track handle and a 3.9% rise in daily out-of-state handle. A total of $2.9 million was bet on Thursday's 13-race card.
Canterbury stopped releasing attendance figures last year, and full numbers were not available for this year's meet. John Groen, Canterbury's vice president of marketing, said average attendance on Sundays topped 8,500 during the height of the summer.
That's a far cry from the season-high crowds of 20,000 from pre-pandemic years. But with COVID-19 still discouraging some people from going out, Offerman said he was happy with the wagering numbers, and even the smaller crowds helped restore the atmosphere that is Canterbury's calling card.
"You could feel a different energy, with families being here and groups of people coming out to the racetrack together,'' he said. "It was so energizing.
"We exceeded our expectations in the second half of the season, when we held most of our Sunday promotions. And we were pleasantly surprised that on Sundays, the off-track wagering held up better than we expected. All in all, we're pleased with the results of the meet.''
Last year's move to weekday racing introduced Canterbury to more out-of-state horseplayers. Offerman hoped they would continue wagering on the track's races this year, and out-of-state wagering rose again, totaling $82.4 million for a meet that was 12 days longer than in 2020.
Groen expected the out-of-state handle to decline on Sundays, when Canterbury had to compete with prominent tracks such as Saratoga and Del Mar. Instead, it averaged nearly $900,000, about triple what he anticipated. That's a good sign for the future, he said.
"That was one of the big takeaways from this year,'' Groen said. "Our racing and our broadcast has generated a lot of attention nationally over the last couple of years, and those fans stayed with us. That opens up some opportunities to think about ourselves differently, about how to capture national handle on days when we might have struggled before.''
On-track wagering was down 20% from pre-pandemic levels in 2019, but Offerman said he was happy with that number, given this year's smaller crowds.
Offerman anticipates the 2022 season will remain about 65 days, in the same mid-May to mid-September time frame. He also expects the hybrid schedule to stay.
"We'll continue to look at opportunities to make ourselves relevant to both markets, the off-track market as well as the on-track market,'' Offerman said. "Hopefully, we can continue to develop both.''