05/05/2005 12:00AM

20 years on, the meeting opens on Derby Day


SHAKOPEE, Minn. - Twenty years ago this summer Thorough-bred racing was introduced to Minnesota when the track now known as Canterbury Park opened its doors. Now owned and operated by the Sampson family and its partners, Canterbury Park begins its third decade of live racing Saturday with an expanded 69-day meeting that commences for the first time on Kentucky Derby Day and runs through Labor Day.

The centerpiece of the meet will be the $650,000 Claiming Crown on July 16. The Claiming Crown, which consists of seven starter allowance races, draws some of the best claiming stock from around the country to Canterbury. The richest open stakes of the meet is the $100,000 Lady Canterbury, for fillies and mares at a mile on turf, which will be held on Fathers' Day, June 19. Minnesota-bred runners are featured in the seven-race Festival of Champions on Aug. 21.

While the track has clearly benefited from the success of its on-site card club, Canterbury Park management's focus has not strayed from its dedicated promotion of live racing. As a result, the track's daily attendance and per capita ontrack handle have grown for the last five years. Weekday nights at Canterbury will feature such promotions as Golden Gloves boxing, live entertainment, drink specials, and contests that include free parimutuel wagers as prizes.

Following its recently completed renovation of the interior and exterior of the grandstand facility, Canterbury Park invested more than $2 million in renovations to its backstretch area this season. Chief among the improvements are a new training track surface and an equine swimming pool. The training track has a completely renovated surface and newly installed inner rails. Its completion was supervized by new track maintenance director Moe Nye, who replaces the departed Tony Caterina.

Canterbury Park begins the 2005 racing season with two new developments that could affect the track's future. During the off-season the Minnesota Racing Commission approved an application that would allow construction of a second racetrack, a harness track, to be built on the northwest side of the Twin Cities metro area. That proposal also included a request for the construction of a card club facility. Currently, the development of the North Metro Harness Initiative is on hold pending the results of a lawsuit filed by members of a community organization opposed to construction of the second track.

The second major development is Canterbury Park's newly formed alliance with several northern Minnesota Native American tribes to develop a racino. In a proposal brokered by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the racino measure, which is now being proposed to the Minnesota legislature, would consist of two casinos, both located at the Shakopee racetrack, with Canterbury Park and the northern tribes each operating one facility.

At a glance: Canterbury Park

RACING SCHEDULE: 69 days; Saturday through Sept. 5; dark Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays except Memorial Day, Labor Day, and July 4th; No racing on Thursdays in May. No racing on Friday, May 13.

POST TIME: 7 p.m. Central weekdays; 1:30 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays.

MEET HIGHLIGHTS: $100,000 Lady Canterbury, June 19; $650,000 Claiming Crown, July 16, $320,000 Minnesota Festival of Champions Day, Aug. 21.

ADMISSIONS: Adults, $4; Seniors 55+, $2; 17 & under, free admission; Thursdays, $1; Opening day, free admission.

SEATING: Mezzanine, $2; clubhouse $3; Park Restaurant $3; apron and trackside deck, free.

PARKING: General, free; Valet, $6.

LOCATION: 1100 Canterbury Road, Shakopee, Minn; just north and west of Highway 169.

PHONE: (952) 445-7223, (952) 445-RACE; tickets, (952) 445-7224.

INTERNET: www.canterburypark.com