IT’S TIME TO SADDLE UP
By JIM WELLS
The morning scene is no different than last year, the year before that or, for that matter, even in 1985, when Minnesota’s first pari-mutuel horseracing facility joined the state’s sporting scene. The diurnal rhythms of barn life continue, one generation to the next. Stablehands unload their wheelbarrows into the manure dumpsters and spread fresh straw in the stalls. Horses stand acquiescently outside the barns while grooms hose them down after a morning gallop. A hotwalker cools down a skittish three-year-old on a second trip through shed row.
Trainers gather in the racing office cafeteria during the training break and the racing office lobby itself on select mornings. Long-time rivals bump up against one another awaiting the draw, exchange a tentative handshake or hello, or maybe nothing more than a nod, if that. Others are more cordial, willing to extend the obligatory
initial greeting of the meeting: “How’d the winter go for you.”
A rhetorical inquiry to be sure, yet in the parlance of the racetrack, it can mean only one thing: A race meet is about to begin, a new season, another fresh start with all of its beckoning promise. AND __ that’s precisely what is taking place at Canterbury Park, at 6:30 p.m. tonight, the first of 70 days of racing, with many familiar names among the equine competitors, the men and women who train them, the riders who will be aboard them and any number of hired hands, some who have been here since opening day three decades ago.
All of them, each in their own way, want to get started. At every level.
”Yeah, I can’t wait either,” said Canterbury President and CEO Randy Sampson. “It will be good to get started.”
Today’s card is the first of 70 through Sept. 12, the most since 1992 after which the track, then Canterbury Downs, went dark until 1995 when it reopened as Canterbury Park. The 2012 marketing agreement Canterbury signed with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Community means an additional $6.3 million in purse money for a total of around $14 million, the most ever at the track.
The highlight of the meet is the $200,000 Mystic Lake Derby, scheduled this year for Aug. 29 in conjunction with the popular Indian Horse Relay Racing sidelight.
Sixty-three horses were entered for today’s card, seven of them in the $60,000 10,000 Lakes Stake race for Minnesota-bred males. One of the seven is Speakfromyourheart, whose only victory of 2014 was in this race.
He is not the only returnee. Defending riding champion Ry Eikleberry, who originally planned to ride in New Mexico this summer, wanted to ride here all along as it turned out. “I was able to get out of there on good terms with my main trainer. I just didn’t want to burn any bridges,” he explained.
So he will take a determined stab at a second consecutive title. “I am here to defend my title and I’m going to do everything possible to make that happen,” he said.
Count trainer Robertino Diodoro in, also.
He set a record for number of wins last year at Turf Paradise, then unseated perennial training champion Mac Robertson in Shakopee. He would like to repeat that exacta this year, having already won another Turf Paradise title.
“Phoenix was good again,” he said. “and I think we should be all right here, too.”
Diodoro has a full stable of 63 horses and plans to use several riders throughout the meet, including Eikleberry, Daniel Vergara, Geovanni Franco, and Jorge Carreno among others.
Perhaps one of them will be Jenna Joubert, a Minnesota native who began her career at Canterbury Park in 2007 before heading East. It so happens she is also a sister-in-law to Eikleberry.
New trainers and riders will be part of the mix for this meet. Tom Amoss, a leading trainer for Midwest Stables, has a string in Shakopee and has sent Leandro Goncalves along as his chief rider. Diodoro and Amoss were among the top 10 trainers for wins in the nation last year.
“There are some really good people here. We should have a tremendous year,” said HBPA president Tom Metzen. “The jockey colony is fantastic, and we have some excellent new trainers, too.
“And, of course, we have the guys who have been here forever _ Mike Biehler, Dave Van Winkle and Bernell Rhone.
They’ll be in the paddock tonight to kick off the 2015 season and on many occasions thereafter.
“The purses are the best they’ve ever been,” Metzen added. “I just think everything is in place for an excellent meet.”
So, there it is, and as a one-time frequent occupant in the pressbox used to say, “Good luck, everybody.”