When horse racing returned to Minnesota in 1995, Randy Sampson wasn’t looking a quarter-century into the future. The Canterbury Park president was concerned only with getting the Shakopee track back on its feet, after it had been dormant for two years.
Recalling those days added to his sense of satisfaction Saturday, as Canterbury ended its 25th season under Sampson’s management. The summer was not without its challenges; attendance was flat compared to last year, and both handle and field size declined. But in an industry beset by problems, Canterbury has remained stable, allowing Sampson to plan for the longer term.
Saturday’s supersized finale —14 races, with 141 horses entered — drew a crowd announced at 6,721 and total wagering of $964,819.
“I couldn’t be happier,’’ Sampson said. “Twenty-five years later, we’re seeing the crowds as big and the racing as competitive and the purses as competitive as we’ve ever had. It’s not like we’re just hanging on. We’re doing as well as we’ve ever done.
“Looking ahead another 25 years, we don’t know what’s going to happen with the industry. But I have no problem looking five or 10 years down the road. I’m very confident we’ve built a sustainable model, and we’ll be able to continue racing for the foreseeable future.’’
The season ended with average daily attendance of 6,592, up 1.3% from 2018. Total wagering on live racing was $615,671 per day, down 11.8%.
Much of that drop was due to a 14.7% decline in out-of-state wagering. Sampson said a dispute among simulcast providers, which prevented high-dollar bettors from wagering on Canterbury’s races for several weeks, was a major factor.
Canterbury continues to compete with other tracks for quality horses, a problem likely to persist as the national foal crop keeps shrinking. Andrew Offerman, Canterbury’s director of racing, said it was particularly difficult early in the season, though Canterbury’s field size still outpaced other tracks in the region.
Offerman and Sampson are discussing ways to address the horse shortage, including delaying the start of the season. The traditional opening on Kentucky Derby day guarantees a large crowd. But waiting a couple of weeks would avoid overlap with other tracks, and it would allow locally based horses more time to get ready to race.
Sampson said tracks are trending toward fewer racing days, which also could be in the cards for Canterbury.
“The schedule needs to be examined,’’ Offerman said. “Maybe the idea that the sport needs to run nine or 10 races every single day needs to be thought through; maybe seven- or eight-race cards are fine. Or you could adjust the beginning or end, or change the number of days per week you race.’’
Several individual records were set this season. Hot Shot Kid won six of seven races to become the highest-earning Minnesota-bred thoroughbred in history, with $545,198 in purses. He was named horse of the meet Saturday.
Hot Shot Kid’s trainer, Mac Robertson, won 73 races this season to reach 866 career victories at Canterbury, breaking the track record. He also eclipsed the Canterbury single-season earnings mark with $2.2 million in purses.
Throughout the summer, Sampson enjoyed reflecting on the past 25 years. He’s more interested, though, in looking forward.
“When we first started, we were thinking a year or two ahead, wondering if we could keep this thing alive,’’ he said. “It’s been quite a nice run.’’