05/12/2009 11:00PM

New meet faces troubled times


SHAKOPEE, Minn. - Canterbury Park opens its doors for its 23rd season of live racing Friday while looking to the state capitol for assistance that will ensure the future of racing at Minnesota's only Thoroughbred track.

A decline in Canterbury Park's business began last season, the first year the track's average daily attendance did not increase in 11 years. Facing new challenges to its simulcasting and card-gaming operations following last year's opening of the Running Aces harness racing facility, Canterbury Park reduced its staff during the off season. In an agreement with horsemen, the track has cut back its meet by five racing days to 62 this year, which allows daily average purses to remain at $143,000 a day, the same as last year, according to Jeff Maday, a track spokesman.

Local horsemen have lobbied the Minnesota legislature this year to permit the installation of slot machines at the track. The potential revenue additional slot-machine gaming in the state would generate is a hot topic as a showdown looms between the Democratic-controlled state house and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty as lawmakers grapple with an estimated $4.6 billion budget shortfall.

"We'll continue, as we have to the past, to work with the legislature in a effort to add additional gaming to Canterbury Park, said Canterbury Park's president and CEO, Randy Sampson. "There's no question that we'll be racing next year."

Much of what makes Canterbury Park a popular summertime entertainment destination for the Twin Cities has been maintained this season. The Claiming Crown, scheduled for July 25, remains the centerpiece of the meet. This year's renewal offers seven races for claiming horses with an aggregate purse total of $600,000. That card will also feature the $100,000 Lady Canterbury Stakes for fillies and mares on the turf.

The Minnesota Festival of Champions, which features seven stakes for statebred runners, has been returned to its original place on the racing calendar, as the last day of racing at the meet on Aug. 30. Canterbury Park will also host Extreme Day, featuring several unusual racing contests, on Aug. 9. Extreme Day debuted in Shakopee two years ago and has proved successful, attracting an average of more than 15,000 fans in its two runnings.

Canterbury's live racing schedule retains its previous Thursday-through-Sunday format, with weekday post times at 7 p.m. and weekend post times at 1:30 p.m. As it did last season, Canterbury Park will host a holiday race card on July 3 that will include a 4 p.m. post time and fireworks after the races.

Five time-leading trainer Mac Robertson returns to Canterbury Park to defend his title following a successful meeting at Oaklawn Park, where his charge Win Willy captured the Grade 3 Rebel Stakes. Win Willy is owned by the Minnesota-based Jer-Mar Stables. Derek Bell, who set a Canterbury Park record last season when earning his sixth riding title, returns to face a jockey colony that includes Dean Butler, Paul Nolan, and Jose Ferrer, who ships his tack to Shakopee for the first time.