05/03/2017 9:40AM

Canterbury opens meet sans takeout experiment

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Canterbury Park, in Shakopee, Minn., begins its 67-day season Friday.

Canterbury Park typically opens its race meet on Preakness weekend, but for the first time in nine years, the Twin Cities-area racetrack begins its season on Kentucky Derby weekend. Canterbury’s first card is Friday.

Canterbury also reverts to another practice from the past in 2017 – industry-standard takeout.

Canterbury in 2016 experimented with lowering takeout, dropping its blended rake to 16.5 percent, the lowest level in the U.S. last year. Win, place, and show wagers had a takeout of 16 percent, all exotics an 18 percent takeout.

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Canterbury is the very rare contemporary example of a track with relatively robust ontrack handle, which accounts for one-third of all betting on Canterbury races, and a weak national-simulcast product. The track hoped its weak simulcast position created opportunity for substantial growth within that market and that the takeout move could generate such growth.

But from track management’s perspective, things just didn’t work out.

“It was a marketing effort to try and get some attention to our racing, but we didn’t get the numbers we had hoped,” said Canterbury president and chief executive Randy Sampson. “When all your handle comes from out of state and you do the takeout reduction, you run some risk but are passing most along to your simulcast partners. The higher your ontrack percentage of handle, the more skin you have in the game, so it was more risk for us. Our statutory requirement with horsemen is they get half of gross handle on live wagers, so the entire cut had to be borne by Canterbury.”

Canterbury, Sampson said, saw a 20 percent decline in ontrack wagering revenue, while a “modest increase” in out-of-state handle didn’t come close to covering the lost revenue from the reduced takeout. Overall, Canterbury experienced an 8 percent year-over-year drop in revenue from handle.

“There was some analysis done, and the conclusion was that it wasn’t sustainable for us,” said Sampson.

So, takeout is back to 2015 rates: 20 percent blended; 17 percent for win, place, and show; and 23 percent for exotics.

“We’ll see this year how the handle reacts,” Sampson said. “I don’t look at it like we never should have done it. What we found out was for us, for one limited meet, it didn’t work well.”

The earlier opening, meanwhile, has positives and negatives. Starting this Friday brings the Derby, and a big crowd, back into the fold, but Canterbury’s horse population doesn’t really hit full stride until June, and early-meet races could struggle for entries. Friday’s eight-race card drew 64 entrants.

“We’re optimistic we’ll have a full backside,” director of racing operations Andrew Offerman said last week. “We went over 625 as of [April 27] and will have close to 800 by opening day. We had 2,300 stall applications, the most since 2013, and still are getting calls every day.”

Canterbury need only fill two cards per week – Fridays and Saturdays – during May. The standard four-day race week, Thursday through Sunday, starts back up in June, with the meet encompassing 67 racing days. Cards on average are split 80 percent and 20 percent between Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses. Weekend cards typically begin at 12:45 p.m. Central, weekday programs at 6:30.

Favorites won at a 38 percent clip last season, when Canterbury averaged a decent (for this era) 7.74 starters per race. Front-runners dominated the main-track action for a sizeable portion of the meet, which saw Dean Butler edge Alex Canchari, 82-81, for leading rider and Mac Robertson absolutely dominate the trainer standings.

Robertson won 71 races, 22 more than Robertino Diodoro’s second-best total. Gary Scherer ($2.16), Karl Broberg ($2.16), and Joel Berndt ($2.11) were the ROI kings among the top dozen trainers last season.

All three have runners in multiple races Friday, though it is Diodoro who controls the featured first race. Among the six entrants in this one-mile dirt allowance with a claiming option are three trained by Diodoro, but the pick to capture the season’s lid-lifter is Aces High, who hails from the barn of Eric Heitzmann.