05/02/2007 11:00PM

New strategy: Late Saturday post


SHAKOPEE, Minn. - The future of Canterbury Park appeared to be at a crossroads last autumn when construction on the Dean Kutz Memorial Chapel was halted while track officials weighed the possibility of developing the portion of the property where the chapel and the backstretch area are situated.

Construction on the chapel - named in honor of the deceased jockey - has now resumed, though, and the main beams of the vaulted chapel roof were raised and bolted into place during the past week, signaling that Canterbury Park will continue to be a fixture on the Midwest racing circuit.

Canterbury begins its 68-day meeting on Saturday, the 21st year live racing has been conducted at this facility. The track has steadily developed its live racing fan base in the 13 years since the Curtis Sampson family and their partners purchased the track, posting increases in live attendance almost annually.

With the Claiming Crown being held at Ellis Park this season, the centerpiece of this year's Canterbury meeting will be the $100,000 Lady Canterbury Stakes, which will be contested July 14. Statebred divisional rivals will square off in nine races on the $380,000 Minnesota Festival of Champions Day card.

Racing fans will be treated to the familiar mix of Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing but will notice a few changes. In an effort to increase the track's exposure in the simulcast market, post time on Saturday will be 4 p.m. from June through September. The track also has continued to remodel portions of its grandstand and backstretch areas, continuing a series improvements made over the last few seasons.

Trainer Mac Robertson returns to defend his Canterbury training title, having led the standings for the past three seasons. He could face a stiff challenge from Jamie Ness, who will return in the coming weeks with a strong group of runners following a successful meet at Tampa Bay Downs. As of Thursday, Ness was tied for the lead in the trainers' race at Tampa.

Last year's leading rider, Paul Nolan, returns in a strong riding colony this season. Leading the list of challengers is Seth Martinez, who is coming off a strong meet at Oaklawn and is the first-call rider for the Robertson string. Derek Bell, a four-time leading rider at Canterbury, was one of several riders banned from riding at Tampa Bay Downs this season because, officials said, of an investigation by the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau. He is named on mounts opening weekend, but the track's president, Randy Sampson, is expected to make a determination later this week on whether Bell will be able to ride this meet.