Fans at Canterbury Park on the final day of the season next month will witness something new: a race named after Tom Metzen, a Minnesota horse racing legend who is credited with helping to bring and keep the sport in this state.
Metzen died Aug. 10 at 78 after a prolonged battle with cancer.
Relatives and friends remembered Metzen as a gruff man on the outside with a “marshmallow” personality inside that revealed a deep love for his children and grandchildren — and for horses. In addition to holding a variety of executive positions in the Minnesota horse racing industry, Metzen and his family owned and raced horses, including three — Shot of Gold, Prime Step and Chisholm — that were Canterbury’s horses of the year.
Metzen gained energy from the fight to bring racing to Minnesota — after many years trucking horses to tracks around other states in the Midwest — and then to build its popularity and sustain it through some financially lean years. His brother, Dave Metzen, said that drive probably helped him weather the cancer that doctors discovered three decades earlier. He far outlived their predictions.
“He ran a great race, and he wound up in the winner’s circle,” Dave Metzen said in his eulogy to his brother at a memorial service this month.
Metzen helped orchestrate the birth of horse racing in Minnesota in 1985 with the opening of Canterbury — though he initially supported a track in Eagan rather than Shakopee. Then in 1992 as a vice chairman of the Minnesota Racing Commission, he cast the deciding vote that ended Ladbroke Corporation’s brief and troubled ownership of Canterbury — a move that some believe saved live horse racing in the state.
Metzen served for years on the boards of the Minnesota Thoroughbred Association and the Minnesota chapter of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. He also directed the HBPA’s Arizona chapter, and was named the national organization’s man of the year in 2006. He also was named to Canterbury’s Hall of Fame.
Canterbury President Randy Sampson said Metzen had a get-it-done style that could be abrasive, but that he played a role in some of the track’s biggest moments, including the launch of the Claiming Crown race series, the survival of the state government shutdown, and the recent financial agreement with the Mystic Lake Casino owners to provide for the track’s long-term stability.
“Virtually all the successes we have had, Tom has had a hand in,” Sampson said. “He was also our most passionate advocate for racing at Canterbury Park and the best there was when it came to recruiting horsemen to race here.”
Metzen is survived by his wife of 56 years, Karen, two children, and numerous other relatives. He was preceded in death by one son and a brother, Jim Metzen, a former Minnesota legislator, who died in July.
Services took place earlier this month. A race on Sept. 17, Canterbury’s final day of the season, will be renamed the Tom Metzen HBPA Sprint.
Canterbury spokesman Jeff Maday said it was a race Metzen had a hand in starting years earlier.
“You can’t replace him,” Maday said.
Metzen also operated Metzen Realty in South St. Paul; Sampson said friends joked at how influential the business could have been if Metzen had been as inspired by real estate as he was by horse racing.
Even as his health was failing, Metzen remained keenly interested in racing, according to an anecdote posted on the Canterbury Park blog. Days before Metzen died, his grandson brought him a picture of one of his horses, Nick’s Silver Top, which had won an Aug. 5 race at Canterbury.
The elder Metzen’s final advice to his grandson: “Take care of the horses.”