When he returned to Canterbury Park two years ago, Justin Shepherd found that nearly everything was just as he remembered. The son of a trainer and a jockey, Shepherd had grown up at the Shakopee track, where the stables were his summer playground and the people his extended family.
But aside from those familiar faces and surroundings, there had been one very big change — which is why Shepherd was smiling so broadly Friday, before riding Sheza Ruler in the third race on Canterbury’s opening night. Shepherd began his riding career in Shakopee at age 16 but soon left for other tracks with richer purses. He came back in 2013, when Canterbury’s purses skyrocketed to $12 million, and has seen them grow to $14 million for this summer’s 70-day season.
At age 28, Shepherd is two victories shy of 1,000 for his career. Friday, he was glad to be chasing that milestone in a place he loves — among people who have known him since he was a kid riding a shaggy pony — while running for the highest purses Canterbury Park has paid since reopening in 1995.
A high-spirited announced crowd of 6,123 wagered $202,877 on an eight-race card. Four-time riding champion Dean Butler won five races, including the 10,000 Lakes Stakes aboard Bourbon County.
“They say ‘If you build it, they will come,’ and they’ve done that here,” said Shepherd, who finished fourth in his only race of the evening. “Every year, [the competition]gets tougher and tougher. The horses are twice as good as they once were.
“I’m originally from Oklahoma, but this will always be home to me. And it’s nice to come home. I’m really glad to be back.”
In the two years since his return, Shepherd has won 52 races and nearly $1 million in purses at Canterbury Park. His parents — mother Sherri, a trainer, and father Dave, a jockey — handed down their horsemanship to the children they raised at the track. Another son, Dusty, is a jockey now riding at Iowa’s Prairie Meadows. Teenage daughter Bucki competes in rodeos.
Justin rode his first career race at Canterbury in 2002. Two years later, he won the $100,000 Lady Canterbury Stakes with Be My Friend, a horse trained by his mom. Shepherd left Shakopee after the 2004 season and stayed away for eight years as the track’s purses declined steadily.
Canterbury’s fortunes turned in 2012, when it signed a 10-year deal with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community that will infuse $75 million into the purse fund. The $14 million the track will pay this season is more than twice the $6.4 million it paid in 2011. That has attracted more horses and trainers and improved the quality of racing, making it an easy choice for Shepherd to come back.
“We’re bucking the trends nationally with the number of horses on the grounds,” said Eric Halstrom, Canterbury’s vice president of racing operations. “What has happened with our purses in the last three or four years has been remarkable.”
Shepherd has ridden at tracks on the East Coast and in places such as Kentucky, Oklahoma and Texas. Last year, he finished 10th in the jockey standings at Canterbury, and he expects it to be even more competitive this season.
Friday’s card featured plenty of drama. In addition to Butler’s big night, there was a three-horse photo finish—won by Butler—and a frightening fall by Our Main Man Moe, who collapsed on the track after finishing last in the fourth race. Track officials said the horse was recovering well after being transported to the barn.
Shepherd will ride three horses Saturday and two more Sunday, as he pursues his 1,000th victory at a place that still feels like home. “It seems like just yesterday when I started,’’ Shepherd said. “Time flies when you’re having fun.”