The majority of us who descended upon Shakopee's new track in 1985 were neophytes when it came to pari-mutuel wagering. The information available on the charts in the Daily Racing Form might as well have been a pop quiz in trigonometry.
Calvin Griffith, the former Twins owner and unique as a philosopher, opined that the state's decisionmakers erred in placing the track, christened Canterbury Downs, on the Minneapolis side of the river.
"Minneapolis has all those frugal Scandinavians," Calvin said. "They will go to the track with $10 in their billfold and make sure they don't lose it all."
Expert though he was on frugality, Calvin was wrong to a degree. Not all of us with a tight grip on the tenner were Scandinavians.
There was no state lottery in 1985, and Indian gaming still consisted of bingo parlors. We were excited at the lure of actual gambling, although completely confused on how to go about it.
I was there twice a week, minimum, with friends and family during that first summer, and for a couple of years after that. We were looking for easy methods to decide on a bet, and took note of jockey Mike Smith's ability to turn $5 into $25 more often than others.
Smith became a heroic figure of those early, adventurous days at Canterbury Downs for me, and my son Chris, and my brother Michael, and his collection of fellow reprobates from Prior Lake.
The Scandinavians were betting hard on Ron Hansen in the first weeks of racing, and he was winning often on favorites, but we were Mike Smith guys — in for $5, maybe even the whole $10, on this Hispanic kid from New Mexico who was 19 years old when Canterbury started racing in 1985.
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Mike Smith, 52 and ready to attempt winning a Triple Crown on Justify in the Belmont Stakes, answered the phone at his home in California last week. He had been given a heads-up that a Minnesota reporter would be calling to ask him to look back to his time at Canterbury.
"There's no doubt; the success I had at Canterbury helped kick off my career," Smith said. "The actual racing was great, but the races aren't my top memories.
"It was such a unique situation because racing was brand new. The people there were so excited to have us. They embraced us. I loved everything about it."
Smith offered a small laugh and said: "What I remember were the off days. We would get a boat on Prior Lake, and we'd go water skiing, and we would have a picnic on the shore, and hang out for hours.
"We got to know a lot of people. I keep thinking, 'I have to get back there some summer, to enjoy the water, the people.' "
Smith said he was "really tight" with Dean Kutz.
"Poor Dean," Smith said. "He was such a great guy. He left us way too young."
Kutz came from Carrington, N.D., making him a regional favorite at Canterbury. He had kidney disease and received a lifesaving transplant from his sister. Later, he had throat cancer and died at 48 in 2004.
"Eddie Martin, Jody Piper, later on Donna Barton; they were all good friends," Smith said. "Canterbury was a good, safe track, with jockeys that cared about each other."
Billy Mott was the trainer who induced Smith to come to Minnesota. "Billy said, 'Come on up, take a chance; I think it will work out for you,' " Smith said. "He was right."
Does the name Noble Secretary ring a bell?
"I remember Noble Secretary," Smith said. "She was a very nice horse. I won a stakes with her."
It was Smith's first stakes win at Canterbury: July 27, 1985, in the second and faster division of the Charles Lindbergh Stakes.
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Mott introduced Smith to Canterbury, but Smith soon was a preferred rider for many trainers. Hansen went to California in early September for riding duties there and that ended the competition: Smith became Canterbury's first leading rider ever, with 72 winners in 378 races — a tidy 19 percent.
He then came back for a dynamic performance in the longer-running meeting of 1986. He had 131 winners in 639 mounts (21 percent) and his horses earned $1.2 million. Not bad for a new track on the prairie.
Sandy Hawley, a renowned veteran, had come in to ride that meeting. He had his call on many of the best runners at Canterbury and wound up just ahead of Smith as the leading rider, even though Hawley left early for California.
Smith had 14 stakes winners, and perhaps the most fabulous riding day in Canterbury history — meaning both the Downs (1985-1992) and now the Park (1995-present).
"Oh, yes; an outstanding young filly," Smith said. "At the time, that win was my biggest purse."
Aug. 23, 1986: Smith rode Heather Lane to a 4½-length win over Dr. Francis in the Canterbury Debutante. The crowd was 20,465 and the purse was $167,950.
Smith had five winners that day and was in the money in all 10 races on the card. I can almost guarantee the Prior Lake gang made a few bucks, because we liked Mike.
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Smith rode a partial meeting at Canterbury Downs in 1987, was back for most of the meeting in 1988, and then the lottery arrived, and the Tribal casinos started dealing blackjack, and our new adventure that was thoroughbred racing lost its novelty.
Michael Earl Smith went on to a Hall of Fame career that would reach its zenith if he can get Justify to the wire first at Belmont Park, a home track for Smith for a number of years.
There are skeptics wondering if that duel in the Preakness might have taken too much out of Justify to cover the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes grind that has ruined so many Triple Crown quests.
"Justify came out of the Preakness better than he did the Derby," Smith said. "I think we'll be good."
We'll be rooting for you, Mike. You were the best chance we tightfisted neophytes had to find a winner in those wonderful first summers in Shakopee.