Come Summer, Simply the Best

come summer win pictureHe was good enough to beat a future national sprint champion, good enough to win all four of his races that summer at the new racetrack in Shakopee. And he was good enough to become the first Horse of the Year in Minnesota Racing history.

He was Come Summer.

A stunning dark colt with royalty in his blood, Come Summer would continue his career racing mostly in Kentucky and other parts South after the first summer in Shakopee, this great-grandson of Bold Ruler and Somethingroyal, who had a son named Secretariat.

Trained primarily by George “Rusty” Arnold and also Shug McGaughey, Come Summer was retired as a six-year-old and purchased shortly thereafter in Kentucky by LeAnne and Dave Dayon of Wind N Wood Farm, who recalled an incident at the time worthy of passing on.

A horse sale was being conducted at the Shakopee Ballroom, when Dayon walked in and ran into Alvin Goebel. Both had been in Kentucky at the same time recently trying to find a horse to stand at their farms.

“I have a stallion you’ll want to breed your mares to,” said Goebel, who had just purchased Danski.

“I have a stallion you’ll want to breed your mares to,” responded Dayon.

Thus began Come Summer’s life in Minnesota, where he would spend the remainder of his days as a stallion and then a pensioner, inquired about frequently by his original owners, Ward and Roberta Williford of Dallas, Texas, right up until his death last January.

“He died right there in the paddock,” said Dayon.”He had the same spinal problem as Seattle Slew.” He was 31 years old with some of the infirmities that accompany many animals as they gather years. Another way of putting it, as Dayon did: “He died of old age.”

Yet what a life he had on the racetrack, winning 14 times from 34 starts that included five seconds and four thirds and earnings of $360,237. A foal of 1982, Come Summer was a horse the Willifords were hopeful of running in the Kentucky Derby, before quarter cracks derailed those intentions.

He came to Shakopee instead and took over the grounds, beating future Eclipse Award winning sprinter Smile in the Canterbury Invitational, setting a track record for a mile and 70 yards that stands 28 years later (1:40.20) and then winning the Canterbury Derby. The Invitational was voted race of the meet that summer. Come Summer demonstrated in the years that followed he could run any distance from sprint to route. He won Churchill Downs’ Grade III Clark Handicap in 1986, beating a handful of Grade I winners in the process.

A Canterbury Park Hall of Fame horse, Come Summer was pensioned at age 22 by Dayon after a modest career at stud. Canterbury Patrons surely recall one of his offspring, Haulin’ Oats.

Officially a dark brown horse, Come Summer stood 16.1 hands. All business on the racetrack, he was playful in the barn and away from the bugle, nipping at his grooms who fed him mints. “He liked to kick up his heels a little bit,” said Dayon, “but he was always a manageable horse to breed with.”

He liked to ham it up at picture time, too. When he appeared in the winner’s circle at Canterbury Park for his retirement acknowledgement, Come Summer knew where the winner’s circle was and what to do when he got there.

“He sat up and posed the moment he saw the camera,” Dayon added.

For the Dayons and the Willifords, Come Summer was one of a kind, the first “big” horse for the Dallas couple and not much different for the Dayons.

“To us he was like owning a person’s first Porsche,” said Dayon.”And we were in constant contact over the years with the Willifords.”

The Willifords were planning a trip to Minnesota to see Come Summer last year. “They weren’t able to make it, but they had hoped to see him one last time before he went,” said Dayon.

Clearly, he was a horse they never forgot, nor, presumably, have the early fans who watched Come Summer’s magnificent summer 28 years ago. Certainly not the Dayons, who are still considering the proper gravestone for the horse.

“He is buried right outside his stall beneath the cherry tree,” said Dayon.”We’re still thinking about what kind of marker to put up for him.”

Just a suggestion, but…

Come Summer, the best of Minnesota racing’s first summer.

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.

Moe Man Takes Bullit

Moe%20Man%20-%20John%20Bullit%20Overnight%20Stakes%20-%2008-16-13%20-%20R08%20-%20CBY%20-%20Inside%20FinishQuite appropriate. Very fitting. The trainer of a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner saddles the winning horse in a $35,000 overnight stake named for John Bullit, Canterbury Downs champion claimer in 1986, a horse ridden by Mike Smith, Julie Krone, Chris Antley, Scott Stevens and Dean Kutz among others.

Ian Wilkes, who conditioned 2012 Classic winner Fort Larned, sent out Moe Man, owned by Robert Lothenbach and ridden by Justin Shepherd.

The instructions were simple: “Ride your race.” Ride the race as it comes up.

“He’s a good rider. I know him from Kentucky,” said Wilkes, after Moe Man left a field of seven rivals eating his dust in a stretch burst, finishing 4 ½ lengths in front of Coconino Slim with Wild Jacob in third.

The easy victory left even Wilkes a bit stunned. “That was surprising, the way he came down the lane,” said Wilkes.

Wilkes, an Australian trainer, learned under a man well known to Canterbury fans – Carl Nafzger, who trained 1990 Kentucky Derby winner and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Unbridled.

If Wilkes was surprised by Moe Man’s easy win, so also were the Canterbury fans, who let him get away at 7-1. The favorite at 2-1 was Diamond Joe, who finished fourth.

John Bullit, incidentally, set track records in 1986 that still stand: on July 25, he ran 1 ¼ mile on the main track in 2:04 1/5. On Sept 26, he turned in a 3:11 2/5 for 1 7/8 on the turf.

He was trained originally by Clayton Gray, who bought the horse in a package deal and loved thereafter telling stories about how John Bullit would introduce himself to a new rider the same way each time: by sending the individual headlong into the rafters of the barn or the dirt in an arena.

The grand old gelding ran 31 times at Canterbury Down, winning 17 times.

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.

Guldemann: A Founding Father

Mike Guldemann0001Mike Guldemann was a person many people recognized but few really knew…”Oh,’ yeah, Mike, sure. Saw him all the time.”

He was an unimposing fixture at Canterbury Downs and then Canterbury Park, seldom seen on the frontside but ubiquitously present in the barns and racing office, often with a string of watches on one forearm, ready to show anyone in need of a new timepiece. “I’ve still got one, a Gruen, I bought from him a few years ago,” said trainer Doug Oliver. “I”ve had to replace several bands on it, but the watch is fine, a really good one.”

People saw Guldemann all the time, this knowledgeable horseman who was part of Minnesota horseracing since the 1960s and involved in the game way before that.

“You saw him around the track all the time. He was there when they opened the place,” said HBPA president Tom Metzen. “I remember he was around when we ran horses at the county fairs, out at Lake Elmo. He had a couple of horses with Dave Sorum at one time. He was nice to everyone. A very nice person.”

Guldemann, who would have turned 95 on May 1 was still driving to the stable-area at Canterbury on a daily basis during the meet last summer when he took on a new part-time line of work, selling bridles or colorful lead ropes, any kind of tack a person desired. “Hard to believe he was that old. He was sharp as a tack,” said Oliver.

For many years he sat in in the dining room of the track kitchen with an open briefcase in front of him, watches, pocket knives and other paraphernalia on display, but Guldemann’s true love was racing, horses in particular.

“He tried to get us into a racing partnership several years ago,” said Canterbury Hall of Fame owner/breeder Gretchen Eaton. “He was a very nice person, very knowledgeable about horses.”

Guldemann died on January 18 at St. Joseph’s Hospital after suffering a stroke. Track chaplain Ed Underwood will lead a memorial for him in the stable chapel at 1 p.m. on Wednesday.

Guldemann bred and trained racehorses from 1951 to 1965 in Minot, N.D., and was a key participant in the drive to bring parimutuel racing to North Dakota. He was one of the founders of the Minnesota Thoroughbred Association and its first president, on an interim basis, while bylaws were being written in 1970. Five years later, living in Hampton with 40 broodmares, he won the Minnesota Thoroughbred Breeders Award for Hut Sut Ralston, by Guldemann’s stallion Vapor Whirl. For the next 10 years, Guldemann lived in Mount Vernon, Illinois, on a farm with 27 broodmares, returning to Minnesota when Canterbury Downs arrived in 1985.

“He sat in my tackroom every morning talking about racing,” said trainer Tom McFadden

“He was a nice old fellow, a nice person. I’m going to miss him.”

Guldemann didn’t simply sit there. He had purchased a mare in foal that Harvey Harrison bought from him. They named the foal Hoodwinked Holly after the woman whose Shakopee family took Guldemann in the last couple of years. “I lived closer to Canterbury than he did,” said Holly Bungert. “He kept his apartment in Prior Lake and he’d go there to write letters to the Thoroughbred Times and take care of his business matters, but it was easier for him to get to the track from my place, and cheaper, too, when gas prices were so high.”

Holly’s two daughters, Rachel and Beth, worked in the stables at Canterbury when they first met Guldemann and quickly began referring to him as “grandpa.” Beth is now an assistant trainer to Mike Lauer at Churchill Downs. Rachel is barn foreman for Mac Robertson at Delaware Park. Guldemann simply became “grandpa” to the entire family, including Holly and her husband, Lowell.

“My kids adopted him,” said Holly. “And he’s been a part of our lives ever since. At first he’d stay over on weekends. Then it was another day and then another.”

Guldemann has a daughter, Melissa, and a granddaughter, Mariah, of Glencoe. He was born on May 1, 1918 in Bowman, N.D.

Guldemann frequently communicated with the Thoroughbred Times, which printed this poem by him in 2009:

THE OLD RACEHORSE

The old gray horse looks over the fence
In a weary sort of way
He seems to be saying to all who pass
Well, folks, I’ve had my day

I’m simply watching the world go by
And nobody seems to mind
As they go dashing by in swift cars
An old gray horse who is twice lame and half blind

The old racehorse has a shaggy coat
But once was young, fit and trim
And he used to work on the racetrack
With a jockey who was fond of him

His owner drives by in his super-charged car
And it makes him feel quite sad
When he thinks of the days that used to be
and the stakes wins that they had

Sometimes a friendly soul will stop
Near the fence where the tired old head
Rests wearily on the topmost bar
And a friendly word is said

Then the old racehorse gives a sigh
And he feels the kindly touch
Of a hand on his mane or shaggy coat
and doesn’t mind so much 

So if you pass by the field one day
Just stop for a word or two
Where the old racehorse
Who once was young and full of life as you 

He will love the touch of your hand
And i know he will seem to say
Thank you, friend, for the kindly thought
For a stakes horse who has had his day.

Mike G 50001

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.

Festival of Champions 2012: Sunny Days Ahead

It’s been twenty years since an unforgettable dark cloud hung over Canterbury Downs, a black funnel positioned to wipe out an entire industry and its primary place of business as well.

Despite the hovering threat and very long odds of survival, horsemen saw a ray of hope. Nearly everyone expected a shutdown of this still fledgling industry. Not many could live with the thought. Horsemen banded together and put on the first Festival of Champions, as a tribute to Minnesota’s horse owners and breeeders and as a defiant gesture to the Ladbroke Racing Corp, the track owner intent on curtailing live racing. Horsemen wanted to prove the company wrong and most of them left that day convinced they had demonstrated their point – racing, presented and advertised properly, was still attractive.

“They had thrown in the towel on promoting racing or doing much to make it successful and we were trying to demonstrate that there was still interest in racing here,” said Randy Sampson, who became the track’s president and CEO when it reopened.

The first Festival drew a turnout just short of 11,000 people and was successful by almost any calculation. It was all the evidence Minnesota’s horsemen needed to continue a fight that would result in renewed racing three years later.

Nonetheless, the future appeared dim despite the success of that first Festival two decades ago. “It was kind of a last showcase for Minnesota horses,” owner/breeder Dan Mjolsness would say years later.

There were winners and losers as on any race day, and Canterbury Hall of Fame rider Scott Stevens represented both sides. He, too, was encouraged by what had just transpired but skeptical nonetheless about racing’s immediate future. “It was a good day and a sad day,” he recalled. “We pretty much knew it was over.”

Stevens had mixed feelings of a more personal nature as well. He won four races on that first Festival card, but not the two he treasured and expected most. He left Shakopee afterward to take up residence in Phoenix, not knowing if his future included Canterbury Downs any longer.

“There was a great crowd and they did a great job (producing the Festival),” he said. “It was hard to believe it was over.”

It wasn’t, as we now know, and horsemen have much to celebrate as they present the 2012 Festival of Champions today.

The marketing agreement with Mystic Lake Casino, for one, will add significant purse money to the Festival card, on which Stevens has seven mounts. It promises stability for the next decade and has horsemen in a frame of mind not witnessed locally since the advent of racing in 1985. Stevens has a chance perhaps to shine as he did on the inaugural Festival running in 1992.

But, first, for the nostalgic and Minnesota racing history buffs, here is a recap of his successful afternoon in that memorable, first Festival of Champions:

He won three of the first four races, including the card opener, the Minnesota Turf Festival Sprint, a 7 1/2 furlong event with a $5,000 purse. Stevens won that race for Skywood Farm and trainer Casey Hannum on a horse named Request The Flag.

He won the third race, worth $7,500 as well, for the Stillwater Sally Partnership and trainer Bill Bethke on Stillwater Sally. ”She’s probably the mother of some of these horses here now,” he said. “And Bill’s the outrider.”

The highlight of the afternoon for Stevens, though, was the ($50,000) Northern Lights Debutante win aboard Bold Sharokee, trained by Mike Biehler, the training champion that year, and owned by Paul Sampson. The horse was special to Stevens for a number of reasons.

He was the only jockey who had ridden the filly, and was on her two races earlier when she won the Graduation Stakes against the boys at Assiniboia Downs.

He spent the previous winter in Minnesota breaking babies for Biehler. One of those babies was Bold Sharokee. “It was really cold,” he recalled, “and I got on her in the snow. The Sampsons had some very well-bred horses, but I kept telling them that she would be the best of them all.”

She won the Debutante that afternoon, finished the season 5-for-5 and was voted Canterbury Downs’ Horse of the Year.

Stevens was certain he was on a winner heading into the $40,000 Fillies and Mares Championship Classic, a future Hall of Fame horse named Northbound Pride, but Belle of the Night and Donna Barton got there first, just ahead of him.

In the next race, the $50,000 Minnesota Classic Championship, Stevens rode Blair’s Cove, a future Hall of Famer, too, and was convinced he was named on the winner. Barton and Timeless Prince had other thoughts once again and finished first, in front of Imagine the Thrill, owned by Chet and Gerry Herringer and trained by Percy Scherbenske. Blair’s Cove was third.

“That was disappointing,” Stevens recalled. “I won those other races but I really expected to win those two.”

Stevens was not done for the day, though. The final race in Canterbury Downs history was the mile and 7/8 $10,000 Turf Marathon, and Stevens rode Mark of Strength, owned by Sharon and Gordon Bredeson, to victory in track record time, which stands yet today.

The event was televised locally and Stevens had his VCR set for the occasion. He didn’t watch the races, though, until he got to Phoenix, where he has competed each winter since.

He will return to the Valley of Sun again when this meet concludes on Monday, but with different thoughts and frame of mind than he did 20 years ago.

The 2012 Festival of Racing is a tribute to Minnesota horsemen and their horses, but it is a toast to the future, too.

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.

If the Glove Fits…

Contrary to what you’ve heard previously, you can go home again. Not only that, but you can arrive on a triumphant note with everything just short of blaring trumpets.

Alex Canchari did just that Friday night. He came home and rode the winning horse in the fifth race, at the same racetrack where his father rode, at the same racetrack where he worked the concession stands from the time he was 14 years of age, selling tacos and making friends of just about everyone who knew him.

“All the kids loved him,” said track president/CEO Randy Sampson. “He has a smile a mile wide whenever you see him.”

Sampson began receiving text messages and phone calls shortly after Canchari brought in Rack Daddy for leading trainer Mac Robertson.

“We’re happy as can be to see him here, someone who started out here as a kid working the concession stands and now he has come back as a rider,” Sampson continued.

Alex used to accompany his dad, Luis ‘The Glove’ Canchari, to Canterbury Downs, watching the races, hanging out on the backside, dreaming a boy’s dreams.

He grew up in the shadow of the race track, in Shakopee, attended high school there through his sophomore year and then graduated with online courses while galloping horses for Moises Yanez and Brian Williamson in Chicago.

His riding career got under way there, then shifted to East Coast tracks, then to the south, at Oaklawn Park, then back East.

But yes indeed that was Canchari, now 18, on Friday night steering an erratic Rack Daddy across the finish line, just a couple of miles from where he grew up dreaming of becoming a jockey one day, seeing the racetrack lights at night as he fell asleep.

“I wanted to become a jockey from the time I was a little boy,” he said in the jockeys lounge afterward. So, he practiced every chance he got. He had a practice horse at home, on which he learned the rudiments of the trade before going to the real thing.

“My dad helped me a lot. I was about 13 years old and he would tell me how to relax a horse. He told me to watch the New York and the California riders for tips on what to do.”

On June 2 this year Canchari amazed himself with a win at Belmont Park on a horse named Dr. Wesley.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled. “I was riding in a race against all my idols – Javier Castellano, John Velasquez, Ramon Dominguez, David Cohen, Eddie Castro and Rosie Naprovnik, all in the same race.”

He rode against his idols and he won the race.

Canchari arrived home five days ago, having driven from New Jersey with his mother, Ann. He had planned to come home all along to visit his sister, Ashley, who was pregnant and about to give birth, but the details of the trip changed suddenly three weeks ago.

He had been riding at Belmont and Monmouth parks and drove to Delaware Park to work a horse, a single horse, but he was injured during the work, breaking a bone and tearing a ligament in his left shoulder.

“It was next to the growth plate and the orthopedic surgeon told me no horses for two weeks,” Canchari related. “I started working some here five days ago.”

Canchari left Chicago for the East early this year after making contact with a stable that put him on mounts in Philadelphia, Monmouth and Belmont Park and also worked some horses at Saratoga.

Alex left New York to give Oaklawn Park a try in January, second guessing himself the entire way. “I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing,’’ he said. “I took a big risk going there.”

He didn’t second guess the decision long. Canchari rode winners on his first two mounts in Arkansas, on opening day, Jan. 13.

There wasn’t much risk coming home, to where he is known so well. He had four mounts, although one scratched, on Friday’s card, has mounts in the Princess Elaine and Hoist Her Flag stakes today for Robertson and has mounts in every race on Sunday.

His Chicago connections obviously stretch all the way to Shakopee. “I rode in Chicago for Mac’s dad,’’ Canchari explained. “I rode before for Charlie Smith, too.”

About that time, Adolfo Morales stepped into the silks room where Canchari was carrying on his conversation and gave him a congratulatory fist bump, recognition of the bugboy’s first win on the home turf.

Canchari’s first professional mount came last Dec. 26 in Chicago and through Friday night’s card he has won 30 races from 319 mounts. His bug will be extended by three weeks, because of his injury, to next March.

And now that he’s here, Canchari’s plans are to stay through the end of the meet. He has an agent, Jodie Sinclair, and, of course, there is a very recently arrived niece, Nova Ley.

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.

Photo Credit: Coady Photography

A Derby by Any Other Name is Just as Sweet

The sportscasts percolated with the details that evening and banner headlines blared the news the next morning.

A longshot – 72-1 mind you – had won the inaugural running of the $300,000 St. Paul Derby, a race that became at first asking the crown jewel of Minnesota horse racing.

The year was 1986 and the horse was Cheapskate (pictured above on the inside) who turned out to be anything but – nothing cheap whatsoever about a $2 ticket that returns $146 at the window, and 23,351 fans witnessed the pulsating finish in this headline grabbing race.

Horses that had run earlier in America’s Classic Races were vanned or flown into Shakopee to participate, Kentucky Derby participants Broad Brush, Bachelor Beau and Rampage that first spring. It was Broad Brush, the third place horse at Churchill Downs the previous month, who engaged Cheapskate in a scintillating stretch duel before losing by a nose to the New York-bred upstart.

Thus began a short five-year span that produced some of the most memorable names in the early history of state pari-mutuel racing - Cheapskate, Lost Code, Fourstardave, Clever Trevor and Secret Hello.

The St. Paul Derby immediately became the trademark race of Canterbury Downs, was awarded Grade III status for its second running, then became a Grade II race and annually drew one of the largest turnouts and betting handles of a season. A crowd of 23,000-plus that first year wagered $2,146,546 million on the card. A turnout of 23,171 pushed $2,265,204 through the windows in 1987, and 15,744 wagered $1,808,401 the next year.

Now, 26 years after Cheapskate became the buzz at water coolers across the state on a Minnesota Monday morning, the Derby returns, this time as the $150,000 Mystic Lake Derby. The St. Paul Chamber of Commerce and much of the city’s business community rallied with sponsorships and promotion of the race named for the Capitol City back then. Now, it is the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community that has joined forces with Canterbury Park to create the biggest purse since the St. Paul Derby became the $250,000 Minnesota Derby in 1991.

“This now has become our signature race and we hope the first step in bringing back the type of race seen in the early days of Canterbury,” said track president/CEO Randy Sampson. “We’d like to get back to that type of racing with the Mystic Lake Derby. That is totally the idea.”

Although many of those early racing crowds were large and wagering robust, most Minnesotans didn’t recognize what they had in those formative years – top-level racing from top-level horses and stables. The promotional agreement and enhanced purse fund from the recent pact with Mystic Lake point once again in that direction, at a minimum to stabilized, improved racing for the state’s thoroughbred and quarter horse industries.

The Mystic Lake Derby is a symbolic nod to the past but an also a glimpse into the future of Minnesota racing.

“Yes, this is a stepping stone so to speak,” said HBPA president Tom Metzen. “Next year it will be an even bigger race, and Mystic Lake deserves it. There are so many things that are right about this agreement, and the Mystic Lake people have been absolutely gracious to deal with.”

Perhaps the future includes some of the wonder, glory and romance of those early St. Paul Derby days. Consider, for example, the following:

Broad Brush, the runner up to Cheapskate by maybe three inches, Bachelor Beau and Rampage were all Grade I winners. ESPN broadcast that first Derby to 1.1 million viewers, making it the highest rated presentation on its Budweiser Racing Across America Racing series that year.

Lost Code, the son of 1980 Preakness Stakes winner Codex, found the right strategy for winning the 1987 St. Paul Derby, a gate-to-wire romp against seven rivals, including Florida Derby winner Cryptoclearance who finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby, third in the Preakness and second in the Belmont Stakes that spring.

Fourstardave became the second New York-bred horse to win Minnesota’s biggest race, in 1988, but arrived without a rider. No was willing to ride the horse for trainer Leo O’Brien until he got to Shakopee and spotted an old friend, Daryl Montoya, on the list of jockey names.

The result was magical. The horse no one wanted to ride went off at 21-1 and provided Montoya with the biggest win of his career.

The 1989 St. Paul Derby, Clever Trevor’s Derby, was the first race simulcast from Canterbury Downs and drew wagering of $469,613 from other tracks in addition to the on-track $319,854 bet on the race. Ak-Sar-Ben, Remington Park , Detroit Race Course, Thistledown, Blue Ribbons Downs and Ruidoso Downs offered the Derby and introduced Canterbury to a new aspect of wagering.

Then came the final St. Paul Derby, in 1990, and a horse named Secret Hello, ridden by Pat Day and trained by Frank Brothers. Secret Hello claimed the winner’s share of $300,000 and his share of the $100,000 bonus as a Grade I winner, the first horse to do so. Instead of $180,000, Secret Hello collected $240,000 that day.

A sidenote: Fourth that afternoon was the Brothers-trained Appealing Breeze, who the previous summer on the same track had won the Canterbury Juvenile over Unbridled, the 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and that year’s Eclipse Award winning three-year-old colt.

There it is, a taste of Canterbury ‘s St. Paul Derby past and perhaps a look into its future, beginning with today’s Mystic Lake Derby.

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.

Brooks Fields, A Man of Vision

Frances Genter named a horse after him. A program in the stable area once bore his name. The racetrack he built named a race after him. He is, of course, enshrined in its Hall of Fame.

He was honored from the early days of racing by the NAACP for his commitment to affirmative action in a manner not seen before at a U.S. racetrack. The list continues ad infinitum.

Brooks Fields was genuinely touched whenever someone mentioned his association with the state’s racing industry. He was humbled even though it was he who brought horse racing to Minnesota in 1985, despite knowing little or nothing about thoroughbreds or quarter horses.

Tomorrow, Canterbury Park will salute him with its annual running of the $50,000 Brooks Fields Stakes. It couldn’t come on a more appropriate day for his daughter, Sara Nessan, who will present the trophy to the winner.

“Father’s Day. It’s all so perfect,” she said.

She believes her father would have been pleased with the recent agreement between Canterbury Park and Mystic Lake. “He would have been very happy for the people of Minnesota,” she added. He would have been pleased for the industry and everyone who makes a living in it.

Fields’s vision and belief in the undertaking that would become Canterbury Downs came after a successful career in the grain business and in real estate, and he undertook the challenge at an age when many men would have collected the royalties of a job well done and headed to the golf course or lake cabin.

Fields was 66 years of age when he took on the construction of a racetrack on farmland surrounded by acres of the yet undeveloped Shakopee landscape. “My mom thought he was nuts,” said Nessan.

Yet Fields proceeded full bore with the project his wife, Martha, originally associated with his dotage, and on June 26, 1985 a gathering of 15,079 newcomers welcomed pari-mutuel racing to Minnesota, nervously putting nearly $868,000 through the windows.

Canterbury Downs was officially part of the Minnesota sports landscape.

“He loved it. He was so proud of it,” Sarah said. “It was always so near and dear to his heart.”

What the early employees at Canterbury learned was that Fields did not recognize a class system in the building. “He treated everyone alike,” Sarah recalled, “the valets, the jockeys, the people at the concession stands. He talked about everybody the same.”

That meant everybody.

While implementing affirmative action policies at Canterbury Downs, Fields developed a close friendship with Jesse Overton, now the chairman of the Minnesota Racing Commission. “He was my inspiration,” said Overton. “He wrote a letter to (Gov. Tim) Pawlenty recommending me for the commission.”

Fields eschewed rigid formalities whenever he met people. He was open and friendly with them, down to earth. His friends called him Brooker.

He had little knowledge of pari-mutuel racing when he undertook the project of building Canterbury Downs along with partners that included Santa Anita Race Track in California. His knowledge of horses was limited as well, although he was part of the last unit to go through horse cavalry school at Fort Riley, Kan.

Oh, and there were those trips to the Sonoran desert. “Growing up he was always taking us horseback riding in Arizona,” Sarah recalled.

There was one another association with horses as well. “My father and mother went to London many years ago and bought some carousel horses,” Sarah added. “They came back with three ponies, two pokers and one big horse. The big one was at their place in Arizona. Every single grandchild was on that horse at one time or another.”

Fields was a people person and it is that legacy by which he is best recalled.

“People were his passion,” Sarah added. “He loved people.”

They loved him back.

“He was truly humbled whenever anyone mentioned the track or thanked him for what he had done,” she said.

Martha Fields died in 2001 and Fields later remarried, to Lucy, a longtime friend of his and Martha’s.

“He was so nonjudgmental with people,” Lucy said. “He let people be themselves.”

Fields, of course, was known for his mind as well as his heart. “He was brilliant,” Lucy said.

Smart enough to handle the rigors of Yale University and to learn the Chinese language well enough that he was used as an interpreter in China by the U.S. Army.

Fields died in June of 2008 at 89, a couple of weeks after attending the Brooks Fields Stakes. In his final days, it was he who expressed gratitude. “He felt blessed,” Lucy said. “He said that he had had a wonderful life, had made more money than he could dream about, had two wonderful wives and wonderful children.”

He had friends wherever life took him. Many of them will be at Canterbury Park today to watch the race named in his honor.

Oh, and the horse Frances Genter named for him?

Brooker – of course.

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.

In Memory: Dark Star 1946 – 2012

There is a seat in the middle of the pressbox sofa that was his for the past dozen years. A small, white lettered sign on the oval coffee table immediately in front has reserved the spot for him all that time. The table also was host to a smorgasbord of barbecued ribs, prime rib, baked potatoes, pizza or various other dishes, often several at a single time, on days he attended the races.

Pizza boxes, half finished dinners, boxes of sugar coated cereals. They could all be found on the table at one time or another. Upon seeing a banquet laid out in front of him one time, a visitor to the pressbox wondered if anyone else was coming to Thanksgiving Dinner.

The sign, incidentally, said simply, Reserved: Dark Star.

Although the seat, last used on Saturday, might go be unoccupied for days at time, it seemed emptier than usual Friday night.

The mere knowledge that he will not sit there again created a somber atmosphere in the press box he has been part of since the doors opened at Canterbury Downs in 1985.

Dark Star, a voice for Canterbury and Minnesota racing, died Friday at the age of 66.

His name was George Chapple but from his first days as a handicapper for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, he went by the name Dark Star, chosen after the upset winner of the 1953 Kentucky Derby.

From that day forward, anyone who met the man was certain of one thing: They would probably never meet another like him. George Chapple, Dark Star, the Dark Man, Star – he answered to all them – was one of a kind.

“You don’t find characters like him anymore, not in this button down, social media world,’’ said track announcer Paul Allen, who worked closely with Dark on any number of projects at Canterbury.

A member of Canterbury’s Hall of Fame, Dark Star had a show for several years at WCCO and was a long-time host of the Canterbury Report. He greeted Allen with a typical Dark Star approach upon meeting the new track announcer in 1995.

“Hey California kid. Keep your distance,’’ Dark told him. “We do things differently here. Welcome aboard.’’

Canterbury President & CEO Randy Sampson described Dark as a man who would go out of his way for a friend. “He was always willing to help,’’ Sampson said.

Yet, Dark’s real legacy was to racing and its spot in the Minnesota sports pantheon.

“Nobody in Minnesota did more to promote or expose racing in this state than Dark,’’ Sampson said.

“That was his legacy. That was his gift.’’

He was colorful, zany, unpredictable and often entertaining.

Andrew Offerman, the social media director in the pressbox, recalled an incident in 2006 when he and Dark Star were assigned to the Trent Tucker celebrity poker tournament at the track.

Offerman was to serve as a greeter at the door. Star was assigned to interview celebrities. Star took the pressbox apprentice under his wing, directing him to his favorite spot for a tuxedo rental.

When the tuxedos arrived on the night of the tournament, Star’s was missing a cinch. “He spent the entire evening with his left hand in his pocket to hold up his pants, while he shook hands with people,’’ Offerman said. “He interviewed Michael Jordan with his left hand in his pocket.’’

Kevin Gorg, Canterbury’s long-time paddock analyst, would forewarn friends about the Dark Man. “You can believe about five percent of what he says, but he’ll keep you entertained for hours on end,’’ Gorg said.

He was practical joker in the early days of the track, often hiding a handicapper’s dinner plate or sandwich when he turned his back. On one occasion, a disliked colleague announced that he didn’t want to know the winner of the Indianapolis 500 that day. He was filming it for viewing that night. There was a piece of paper underneath a windshield wiper on his car after the races. Yup, it included the name of the Indy 500 winner.

He was a promoter, a talker, a salesman.

“He could jump off a building and talk the concrete below into letting him live,’’ said track analyst Angela Hermann, who teamed with Dark to win a meet-long press box handicapping contest last year.

“It came down to the final race of the season,’’ Hermann recalled. “We won by a length.’’

Hermann and Dark teamed up to win a pick four via simulcast at Hollywood Park last weekend. Dark would fund many of their enterprises. Hermann would do the handicapping.

Dark loved the horses but he was a lousy handicapper. He talked his way into a handicapping job at the Pioneer Press in the 1980s, claiming he once handicapped for the Los Angeles Times, even though no one there recalled him.

From the basement of the grandstand to the pressbox at the top, Dark Star was a topic of conversation on Friday.

Jockey Derek Bell looked up on his way to the paddock before the third race Friday and said simply:

“This really sucks,’’ he said.

Jesse Overton, the chairman of the Minnesota Racing Commission, was standing in the paddock and broached the subject.

“It was so sad to hear about Dark Star,’’ he said. “He really tried to help this place.’’

One tweet sized up the Dark Man this way on Friday:

“Wherever he is right now, he’s probably looking for a Racing Form.’’

And maybe a pizza to go with it.

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.

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