OPENING DAY CALM BEFORE THE STORM

BY JIM WELLS

A native son won the first race of the season Friday under sunny skies, a warm inviting breeze and before a late arriving crowd that grew slowly but only slightly as the afternoon progressed.

Alex Canchari, who grew up in Shakopee, a short gallop from Canterbury Park, had a winning hand in the mile optional claiming event, guiding Aces High to a narrow victory over Valeski and defending riding champion Dean Butler.

Butler ended the 2016 meet with a narrow victory of his own, one win in front of Canchari. This way or that, the first race of 2017 might have been a harbinger of what’s to come again this meet between the two riders. For now, with 66 racing days remaining, Canchari has the lead. He finished opening day with a riding hat trick, summing it up afterward with a time-honored sports cliché. “I really don’t (count possible wins before the card),’’ he said. “I just go out and ride.’’

Almost as an afterthought, Butler delivered a shot across the bow in the final race of opening day,, riding a horse named Drop the Gloves for his first win of the meet.

Everything pointed to a great opening to 2017. The weather couldn’t have been better, and track management expected a solid turnout, timing the first race for 4:20 p.m., as opposed to the usual 6:30 p.m. starting time. The early start gave fans a chance to wager on two live races before the simulcast of the Kentucky Oaks, the filly event that highlights the Churchill Downs card one day before the Kentucky Derby each year.

Yet, only 6,762 turned out.  Track president Randy Sampson acknowledged the small turnout and wagering handle, and said that poor communication might have played a role.

“I don’t know if people knew about the early start,’’ he said. “But we wanted to try it for a number of reasons. We wanted to give people a chance to bet on the Kentucky Oaks but for whatever reason, maybe working late or not knowing about the early start…’’

The last eight seasons Canterbury’s first race card was the night before the Preakness Stakes, two weeks later than this year’s start.. Many fans were possibly unaware of that change as well. If nothing else, Friday’s opening gave employees a “dry” run at what will probably be the largest crowd and wagering handle of the season for today’s Kentucky Derby card.

“It will be a big day tomorrow. We know that,’’ Sampson said.

The founder of Canterbury Downs had a favorite saying whenever the sun was shining, the sky was blue and everything else lined up perfectly for a successful opening to the season or any other big event.

“We were kissed by an angel,’’ Brooks Fields would say during those early years of horse racing in Minnesota.

Sometimes, however, there was a devil was in the details.

Spectacular weather didn’t sustain the crowds originally attracted by this new form of entertainment, and  seldom produced desired wagering handles. Then, competition in the form of the Minnesota lottery and later Native American casino gaming arrived, providing alternative gaming choices.

Nonetheless, horse racing found a niche in the Minnesota gaming pantheon, although it requires constant attention and experimentation to remain viable.  Racing had to undergo a tremendous change to find its niche, a change that included shutters on the racetrack for two years while an entirely new financial approach was organized.

The track reopened in 1995 with a new name, Canterbury Park, and new approach to racing. Originally run under the auspices of Santa Anita Park in California, the Shakopee racing facility was now under control of the Sampson family who would take the company public.

In the years thereafter, special promotions involving events other than horse racing were added to the racing calendar to help boost overall attendance and introduce these patrons at the same time to the sport of racing. Promotions such as Extreme Day, featuring camel and zebra races, beer promotions and Corgi and Wiener Dog races have become popular attractions.

Friday’s card featured eight races in addition to the Kentucky Oaks, won by Abel Tasman, and that result offered another Canterbury connection. The winning rider, Mike Smith, started his riding career in Shakopee and is in the track’s Hall of Fame.

Track employees, wherever encountered, were inevitably discussing the slow day they experienced as  Friday wore on, but always with the caveat that “tomorrow will be a madhouse.’’

Opening day did not draw the crowd or the handle track management expected. But they also believe that it was merely  the calm before the storm. .

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