BY JIM WELLS
The morning of the Breeders’ Cup races in 1988, Tom Metzen was in the track kitchen at Churchill Downs preparing to take breakfast from the wheelchair he occupied that day, slightly thin of face but not of spirit despite the recent diagnosis he had only six months to live.
The most knowledgeable doctors in the world might have thought his days were numbered, but they had no idea with whom they were dealing.
People in the racing world did not either, not at the time, but they would learn in time that he was not someone to roll over and quit. He was not a man who could be intimidated, frightened or cajoled into anything. On the contrary, it was he who stepped on toes occasionally, argued fiercely to make a point but always got the job done, frequently with compliments from those who originally opposed him.
People questioned his motives at times and later reversed course completely, having taken a closer and more nuanced look.
He was complicated and sometimes controversial, but always direct and to the point, and a champion of horsemen wherever he went. On Wednesday, 28 years after doctors gave him a half year to live, the cancer he had fought for three decades prevailed. For many who knew him, Metzen’s passing after such a long, courageous battle presented this question: Did cancer win this fight or did he?
“He was the toughest man I ever met,” said long-time horseman and breeder Jeff Hilger. “I don’t know another person who could have done what he did.”
“Yes, he was tough,” said Hall of Fame trainer and HBPA board member Dave Van Winkle, adding a qualifier, “but he was a miracle.”
Metzen was president of the Minnesota chapter of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, was an officer of the HBPA at Turf Paradise in Arizona and first vice president of the National HBPA. Previously, he served on the Minnesota Racing Commission and he was one of Minnesota’s racing pioneers, competing on the bush tracks and in Canada and Omaha in the 1970s before becoming a tireless activist who helped bring the sport to Minnesota.
“Nobody knows how many hours he put in or what he accomplished for all of us,” said trainer Tony Rengstorf, a board member of the Minnesota HBPA. Rengstorf took a position with the HBPA for a specific purpose, “because I was skeptical. I wanted to see what was going on,” he said.
And he discovered what?
“I don’t know where we would be today without Tom,” Rengstorf said.
Some of Metzen’s acquaintances are convinced that horse racing played a vital role in his long survival battle. He was passionate about the sport and his commitment to it. Racing gave him additional reason to continue the fight and he poured a vast amount of energy into the sport at various levels.
“We won’t be able to replace him,” said HBPA vice president Jack Walsh. “Somebody will take over for him, but we won’t be able to replace him. We aren’t going to find someone with the knowledge, the history and the connections he had nationally, or his know how.”
Canterbury Park president Randy Sampson issued an email on Metzen’s passing, listing some of his many accomplishments, many of them in conjunction with track management.
Sampson credited Metzen for his role in defying the Ladbroke Corp. when it attempted to preempt live racing in Minnesota by turning Canterbury Downs into essentially a pari-mutuel simulcasting venue in the early 1990s.
Metzen, then on the commission, left a hospital bed to cast his vote that helped shut down the corporation horsemen believed was threatening their sport in Minnesota.
“We owe Tom a great debt of gratitude,” Sampson said, “as his contributions to making Canterbury Park and the Minnesota horse racing industry what they are today are unmatched.”
Metzen’s passion for the sport and what it meant to him and Minnesota were also a part of Sampson’s statement. “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 campaigned tirelessly for improvements in the stable area and, as Sampson pointed out, helped the track survive a government shutdown as well as helping orchestrate the deal between the track and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community that operates Mystic Lake Casino.
“Virtually all the successes we have had, Tom has had a hand in,” Sampson said.
Sampson noted that he and Metzen didn’t always agree on issues but were able to work together to form one of the most successful track-horseman relationships in the nation.
“Tom is gone,” Sampson said, “but his legacy will live on at Canterbury Park every summer when the horses are on the track and the crowds are in the grandstand.”
Which is where Metzen could be found nearly every day, at a table at ground level of the grandstand, with his wife, Karen, and an assortment of friends, most of them horsemen.
“He was a horseman’s horseman,” said Walsh, who will take over as president until a new one is elected in the autumn.
“He could shake a mountain and get it to tremble,” said Hall of Fame trainer and HBPA board member Bernell Rhone. “He looked out for horsemen in many ways and he had a vision of the future, like the deal with Mystic Lake. He understood how it would work right away. I thought at the time it was a dumb idea but it turned out great. He will be dearly missed.”
What most horsemen recognized about Metzen is that he understood their needs and concerns because he was one of them. He has been a horseman for decades, turning some of the first horses owned by him and his wife, Karen, over to a young trainer breaking into the business named D. Wayne Lucas, then training near Rochester.
The Metzens have left their mark on Canterbury Park when it comes to producing racing champions, too. Most notable are the three horses of the year they raced: Shot of Gold, Prime Step and Chisholm.
A member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame, Metzen broke into racing in the mid 1960s, influenced by Alvin and Marlys Goebel, also Canterbury Hall of Fame enshrinees.
“Tom knew everything…about the HBPA and track business, what we should be or not be. He was good that way,” said Hall of Fame trainer Doug Oliver. “There was a lot of controversy around Tom, but he put in a lot of time and effort.”
Metzen’s mind was on racing until the last moments of his life. He had a horse named Nick’s Silver Top win last Friday night. Several acquaintances thought that would have pleased him greatly, having the last starter of his life also be a winner.
Two days later, his grandson, Nick, picked up a win picture to deliver to him at the hospital. Then, when Nick showed up on Monday to visit, Metzen, weak, tired and very ill, had a question for his grandson nonetheless. “Do you happen to have a condition book with you?” he asked.
Only days earlier, Metzen claimed a horse out of Del Mar in California.
His attention was focused on racing to his final moments. Nick said he will not forget and intends to honor his grandfather’s last words to him.
“Take care of the horses,” he told him.