08/12/2016 10:36AM

Metzen, key figure in Minnesota racing, dies at 78

Canterbury Park
Tom Metzen (right) worked hard to improve the Minnesota horse racing industry for more than 30 years.

Tom Metzen, a driving force in Minnesota horse racing since the early 1980s, died Wednesday at age 78 due to complications from cancer.

Metzen, a straight-talking native of South St. Paul, Minn., played a role in seemingly every important initiative in Minnesota racing. He was part of the team that helped pass parimutuel legislation in the early 1980s, which led to the opening of Canterbury Downs in 1985.

When racing bottomed out in 1991 after the track was sold to Ladbrokes, which wanted to continue simulcast wagering but would not commit to a live meet, Metzen was instrumental in having the owner’s license voided. That led to the purchase of Canterbury by Minnesotans Curtis Sampson and Dale Schenian, who reopened the facility in 1994 after it had been closed for two years.

Metzen also was a driving force behind card-club legislation at Canterbury and the creation of the Claiming Crown, which began at the Shakopee, Minn., track and continues today at Gulfstream Park.

Metzen was a member of the Minnesota Thoroughbred Association board in the track’s early years. He was appointed vice chairman of the Minnesota Racing Commission by Gov. Rudy Perpich in 1988.

Once the track reopened, Metzen increased his involvement with the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. He had been the president of the local HBPA for as long as Sampson or HBPA vice president Jack Walsh could remember.

Metzen also held the position of first vice president of the National HBPA for the central region of the country.

Canterbury chief executive Randy Sampson, the son of Curtis Sampson, worked closely with Metzen for more than 25 years.

“What was unique about Tom’s involvement in racing is that as a member of the Minnesota Racing Commission and as the president of the HBPA, he was basically a volunteer,” Sampson said. “He spent 20 years dedicating his time for the good of the industry. It is very rare that someone will volunteer their time for that long a period.”

Prior to the opening of Canterbury, Metzen “jackpot-raced Quarter Horses and rode some rodeo stuff,” said Walsh of the HBPA.

“He was the toughest guy I’ve ever known,” Walsh said. “He never backed down. You always knew where Tom stood. He was sick a long time, but a week ago Sunday he sent his trainer, Robertino Diodoro, to claim a horse at Del Mar for him.”

Metzen, who operated Metzen Realty in South St. Paul, is survived by his wife of 56 years, Karen; children, Tim Metzen and Kathy Machacek; and a brother, David. His younger brother, Jim, a state senator representing South St. Paul, died a month ago.

Visitation is Monday and Tuesday at Kandt & Tetrick Funeral Home in South St. Paul, with a funeral to follow Tuesday at St. James Lutheran Church.