05/14/2002 11:00PM

Card club is aces for racing

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For a track that went dormant for over two years in the mid-1990's, Canterbury Park is now doing quite well - thanks to their ace in the hole.

Clearly, the saving grace at the Shakopee, Minn., track, which on Friday evening opens for its 16th season of live racing, has been the Canterbury Card Club. Opened in April 2000, and located on the first floor of the track's five-story plant, the 50-table card club not only has improved the bottom line for the track, but also has significantly improved purses.

This year, including statebred incentive funds and all owner and breeder bonuses, Canterbury is expecting to pay out about $120,000 per program at the 62-day meet. That figure is a dramatic improvement over the bottom-of-the-barrel purse levels that Canterbury was offering before the card club infusion.

The card club "has been a huge boost for us in all aspects, from purses to the company's long-term viability to a morale standpoint for horsemen, employees, and customers," Canterbury president Randy Sampson said.

"It has helped us convey the message that Canterbury is here for the long run, that we will continue to be here to grow and prosper," he said. "I can't say enough about it."

The evolution of the card club began more than a decade ago. Canterbury's former owners initially sought off-track betting satellites throughout the state, and in 1991 the state legislature passed a law that would have allowed them. But the state Supreme Court ruled the OTB's unconstitutional soon after, and Canterbury, reeling from a horrendous business slump, closed for live racing in 1993 and 1994.

Having reopened in 1995 under new ownership, Canterbury was at the vortex of a bitter fight in the fall of 1997 for casino-style, ontrack slots. Again, the track lost that battle.

All the while, Indian-reservation casinos in Minnesota - notably, Mystic Lake, which is located only a few miles from the back gate at Canterbury - were pummeling Canterbury, wooing many of their would-be customers while making millions of tax-free dollars.

Although Canterbury had been marginally profitable since 1995, Sampson and other major stockholders desperately sought a way to stave off the relentless competition.

Relief came two years ago with the card club. On any given day or night at Canterbury, the first floor is a bustling place of business, with tables filled with customers.

Predictably, horsemen and the racetrack have their differences on how the card club proceeds should be split, and there is an ongoing dialogue about who gets what. State law mandates that 14 percent of gross revenues go to purses, and while Canterbury currently is paying slightly more than that, the horsemen say it is not enough.

By law, revenue splits are to be reviewed and negotiated on an annual basis, and they could well prove to be a perennial point of contention.

"Obviously, it's a nice problem to have when you get into discussions about splitting up profits," said Sampson. "It's a lot better situation than we had here a few years ago."