07/22/2003 12:00AM

Canterbury: A jewel of a track

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The scenery may change - from the cornfields and hay rolls of Scott County, to the palm trees and weathered cliffs of old Del Mar - but the song remains the same. With a little bit of effort, and pride in the product, horse racing can still draw a crowd. And a winner is always sweet.

Minnesota State Highway 169 had more than its share of cars last Saturday, as more than 10,000 fans pulled into Canterbury Park for the fifth presentation of the Claiming Crown. The track is located deep in farm country, out there to the south and west of downtown Minneapolis, where the horizon is broken only by the red cupolas atop the racetrack grandstand and, to the north, the vertiginous roller coaster of the Valleyfair amusement park.

For the past 20 years, Canterbury Park has been on a wild ride of its own. Built by an ambitious management at Santa Anita Park, it was christened Canterbury Downs and opened in 1985. Five years later, the English company Ladbrokes bought the place, figuring it was a good bet for its North American stable of parimutuel holdings.

By 1992 the track was shuttered, a victim of Indian casinos, state lottery, and the failure to establish offtrack betting. Proud locals, though, refused to take no for an answer. They found financing to buy out Ladbrokes, and in May of 1995, Canterbury Downs was reborn as Canterbury Park.

Today, Canterbury represents a vital component in the overall health of the Thoroughbred racing industry. Without such small-scale, independently owned regional tracks, bringing the live game to places besides California and New York, horse racing would be swallowed whole by such huge companies as Magna Entertainment and Churchill Downs.

Randy Sampson, president and CEO of Canterbury and part of the ownership group that saved the track, concedes that the Canterbury Card Club, occupying the eastern end of the grandstand, helps keep the racetrack afloat. Racing, however, remains Sampson's priority.

"We like to think of Canterbury as a racetrack with a card club, not a casino with horse racing," Sampson said. "I think it's important to put our effort into bringing people out for a day at the races."

Since 1999, the Claiming Crown has been Canterbury Park's most successful event. Problem is, the Claiming Crown does not belong to Canterbury Park. It is a creation of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. Four of the five runnings have taken place at Canterbury, leading Sampson to hope that his track can be designated the Claiming Crown's permanent home.

"That hasn't been decided yet," said Remi Bellocq, the NHBPA's executive director. "But certainly, the Claiming Crown has come to be identified with Canterbury, and they put on a great show."

If Joe Cheeks gets a vote, Canterbury is a cinch. It was Cheeks and owner Keith Richardson who kicked off last Saturday's Claiming Crown with a victory by Ghoastly Prize in the $50,000 Iron Horse, marking the biggest win in Cheeks's career as a trainer.

They claimed Ghoastly Prize - a grandson of both Mr. Prospector and Golden Fleece - for $5,000 out of his 24th start last August at Arlington Park, then sent him back to Richardson's Florida farm in Ocala. Four months later, a fresh and happy Ghoastly Prize was ready to go, again for $5,000, at Tampa Bay Downs. Just like that, he was claimed.

"He raced as a 2-year-old in Miami, so they must have known something about him," Cheeks said. "It was frustrating, to put that time in on him. But that's the game.

"My wife and my owner wanted me to take him right back, but you know how you get a little stubborn," Cheeks said. "You don't want a guy to make money off you right off the bat. After that, it seemed like every time I picked up the overnight he'd be in. When he dropped back in for $12,500, my boss said as long as we're going to Canterbury, let's try him again. We fixed him once, maybe we can do it again and have a shot to go in the Claiming Crown."

This is the first season Cheeks has trained a string at Canterbury.

"I wanted to go someplace for the summer where my kids could go," Cheeks said, referring to 13-year-old Jared and 11-year-old Katie. "They told me this was a great place for a family. And they were right.

"The track is like a family operation," Cheeks said. "A lot more friendly than some tracks, where kids aren't really welcome that much, and it can feel kind of like a factory. Here, my son is learning how to do horses up, and they both can ride the pony to the track with the horses. It's a super place for them to learn the business."

Cheeks, a Pennsylvania boy, must have been studying his "Prairie Home Companion," by native Minnesotan Garrison Keillor.

"This is a state of people not so far removed from the farm," Keillor wrote, "and farming is a civil business that believes in sharing new information and helping your neighbor. It produces goodhearted people who are tolerant, helpful, and friendly. We have seen major league places, and that's one reason we live here instead."

Keillor probably did not have Canterbury Park in mind, but the point is clear. If ever there was a big little racetrack, Canterbury fits the bill.