Horse Racing in Minnesota: How A Racino Will Help the Sport and the State

Dan AdamsCorrespondent IMarch 17, 2010

CHELTENHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 16:  Binocular ridden by Tony McCoy en-route to winning The Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy on Day One of the Cheltenham Festival on March 16, 2010 in Cheltenham, England.  (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)
Warren Little/Getty Images

Canterbury Downs was built in Shakopee, Minnesota in the early 1980s. They ran their first pari-mutuel wagering horse race on June 26th, 1985. It was truly a spectacle in the Twin Cities area. Early on, Canterbury Downs enjoyed regular crowds exceeding 10,000. As time has moved forward and as the sport of horse racing has become less and less of a staple in the United States, crowds have diminished. After the initial closing of Canterbury Downs, the fan base in Minnesota really dwindled away. Their re-opening as Canterbury Park in 1995 didn't spark the interest that it did during the 1980's. With casinos open all around the state, including a little over a mile from the horse track, gambling dollars went from the pari-mutuel pools to the slot machines. Current ownership has developed a profitable product with the addition of the Canterbury Park Card Club. It is under construction for remodeling, and will re-open better than ever. Still Canterbury Park can not survive without the added revenue from state-operated slot machines. All of that income is going to the Mdewakanton Sioux tribe who own Mystic Lake Casino. Politics have played a huge role in the restrictions of slot machines at Canterbury Park. Campaign dollars and much of the problem is coming from the Democratic Party and their support of no gambling expansion. Not only is Canterbury Park missing out on the small amount of revenue they would receive from these slot machines, but Minnesota citizens are as well. Those machines could generate millions of dollars to pay for stadiums, highways, and other costs. It would also create hundreds of additional jobs in the Shakopee area.

The problem stems back to the early days at Canterbury Downs when the state threw them a curveball with the legalization of Native American gaming as well as enacting its first form of the Minnesota State Lottery. The same tribe that runs Mystic Lake is the tribe that uses various tactics within their public relations staff to make it look like they are helping out the State of Minnesota. They try to make it seem like a good portion of what they are making is going back to the state, but it actually is minuscule to the dollars that should be generated by a state-governed casino. It has been proven in a number of other states, that the slot machine revenue is consistent and a help to government costs.

Current owners, Curtis and Randy Sampson built something from nothing when they purchased the track from Irwin Jacobs in 1993. Considering the state of horse racing, Canterbury Park has moved from a low-level thoroughbred track to one that can attract some of the best horses and jockeys in the country.

The Sampsons have also built a good-standing relationship with State of Minnesota, and have helped the horse industry like no one else in history in Minnesota. With the help of the "poker boom," Canterbury Park has experienced some new and younger patrons. Something that is much needed if the track plans on succeeding in the long-term. The ownership group knows this and has applied some of the best marketing strategies within the horse racing industry. I have been to many tracks in the country and none of them get nearly as many patrons as Canterbury does on Thursday and Friday evenings. These new people may not bet like they do in other states, but the track is trending in the right direction. The only way to succeed in the future will be if they can grab the minds of the younger generations. The sport is attractive. It just needs to be marketed and presented the right way, Canterbury Park is doing that.

With the poker craze calming down a bit as the economy has struggled over the past two years, the track has taken a small step back in its quest to become a Midwest power in the industry. The purses were climbing, the jockeys were getting better, and, most importantly, better horses were being bred in Minnesota. The thoroughbred industry was growing at an exponential rate. The economy can be blamed for that small step, and the addition of slot machines would give it a big jolt forward. It is necessary in an industry surviving on purse structure from alternative gaming revenues.

In addition to a bad economy the state Legislators decided that Canterbury Park would not be granted an exception to the smoking ban enacted two years ago. It has caused business to move elsewhere, specifically down the road an extra mile to the Native American casino in Prior Lake. Since the casino is on Native American territory the smoking ban does not have to be enforced.

Over the past decade or so, Canterbury Park Holding Corp. has made a strong effort to gather support for a racino. It has failed in the past attempts, but the momentum for the racino is stronger than ever. Anyone opposed to the idea should check out the web site It has all the information you would want to know before supporting the bill.

The chances of getting a racino to pass this session have been better than in the past, but there are no guarantees when it comes to the government. They could dismiss the bill without enough public support. Please call your local representatives, call your friends, inform them of the benefits. If you need a job, if you are sick of paying high taxes, if you do not want to pay for the Minnesota Vikings new stadium, please support this bill.

Live racing is going to open up on May 14, and the folks at Canterbury Park are expecting a great season of racing. Last year, the Claiming Crown was run at Canterbury Park for a record ninth time. It brought in some of the top jockey's from across the country, including Julien Leparoux, Russell Baze, Jeremy Rose, Robby Albarado, and many others. It will return on July 24th for a tenth time. Great horses, trainers, and jockeys are expected back to improve on what is becoming one of the best Summer events in horse racing.

Minnesotan horse fans typically have to travel to Chicago to witness the top jockeys and horses from across the country. This July they will have a chance to come and see the best in the business duke it out at their local track. If you would like to see more of this racing, if you want to see the best horses in the industry on a regular basis, please support this bill.

This year we saw Furthest Land exit the Claiming Crown Jewel and work toward the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. It just so happened this Claiming Crowner snuck out a 3/4 length victory worth over a million dollars. Anyone could have claimed that bay gelding over the past year or so, and now he respectively has a Breeders' Cup victory to uphold as a five-year-old.

Also in 2009, perennial champion trainer Mac Robertson was set to put forth his first Kentucky Derby contender in Win Willy. With the race Mine that Bird ran, it was eerily similar to the running style that was best suited for Willy. If it wasn't for a pre-race injury Willy would have had a chance to take down 'that Bird' in the final furlongs.

We will never know what could have been, but one thing is for sure: Canterbury Park is producing horses with the potential of making it to that Kentucky Derby someday. It was only one horse, but Willy was knocking on the doorstep after breaking his maiden at Canterbury. Jer-Mar Stables decided to turn down a $3 million offer for the gray colt; now they will have to wait and see what he can do as a four-year-old.

It's great to see racing fans in Minnesota finally getting a taste of that pinnacle of the sport. It takes a long time to learn how to handicap a horse race, but one can learn to love the sport instantly. I urge you casual fans to visit Canterbury over the next couple months. Come learn the contenders that will be racing on the first Saturday in May. Take a Saturday afternoon to learn the nooks and crannies of Tampa Bay Downs or Arlington Park. Horse racing is underrated in the United States and a lot of people don't even realize the thrill they are missing.

When you see that gratification between owner, trainer, and jockey in the winner's circle, or maybe it's you and your three buddies collecting on a nice trifecta, something just clicks. 

If the Minnesota legislature fails to act on the proposed racino bill this time around, Canterbury Park, the hundreds employed by the track, and the loyal fan base will soon disappear.

The horses can and will move on if we don't find a way. The trainers will move their stables back to other tracks that they originally migrated from. The Claiming Crown as we know it will no longer be at Canterbury.

Times are tough everywhere, but states throughout the country are helping horse tracks stay open. Florida, Louisiana, Indiana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and more have all taken steps to keep their horse tracks running.

Do what it takes. Contact your representative in the state government. Take a stand. Sign the petition at