Opening Day 2009 - Canterbury Park

Courtesy of Ted L. Grevelis (Owning Racehorses)


Opening Day crowd of 7,000+ line the apron prior to the start of Race 3


While the eyes of the horse racing world are turned to the Triple Crown, there are other races to be run and less hallowed tracks than Churchill, Pimlico and Belmont have their meets just beginning.  Here in Minnesota our racing season is short, but Canterbury Park makes the most of that opportunity each and every year.

Last season's opener was Derby Day and it was bright and sunny and packed to the rafters. This year was a Friday night under the threat of rain... When I got to the track about 30 minutes before first post, the parking lot looked like a typical Saturday. Decent for a Friday night, but not great for a season opener. More of the same once I got inside - a nice crowd, but nothing special. There was a glimmer of hope from the south as there was a line of clearing that looked like it wanted to come our way. Maybe if we could get some of that it could help save the night a bit?

Entering the track I went right to the paddock, located just inside the main gate to the right, for the first race. There was certainly an air of exuberance. Friends were greeting friends they haven't seen since last season and after an extended off season, everyone was happy to be back racing.


Canterbury Paddock prior to the 1st race of the season

The first race went off as scheduled and as the final horses moved into the starting gate, the crowd started applauding and went the latch sprung and track announcer Paul Allen began the call there was whooping and hollering from the growing crowd - we were back in action!


They're Off!!! The gate springs open in the first race of the 2009 season


Dean Butler piloted the first winner of the meet, the Mac Robertson trained 3-5 favorite Mister Merz. Merz is stablemate of Rebel Stakes (G2) winner Win Willy and carries the colors of the Jer-Mar Stables. There was a sad note to the open festivities as Golden Prancer broke down in the turn for home. Jockey Adolpho Morales was unseated but thankfully unhurt as was the jockey of Erinn and Aaron, B.L. Hollingsworth. Golden Prancer was vanned off the track. The celebration of the first race of the season was a subdued one.

Fortunately the second race featured a great comeback by a big favorite in a stretch run that took up every stride to the wire. Five to one Crossing Guard tried to take the field wire to wire and built up a 10+ length lead entering the stretch. Even money favorite, Ma Barker made her move under Juan Rivera and started to chop into that big lead with every stride. As the wire got closer, so did Ma Barker. The crowd was really worked up by mid-stretch and as Crossing Guard's stride shortened, I'm sure the wire seemed like it would never come for Dylan Williams. When they finally crossed it looked like she had hung on...until the instant replay. Maybe Ma Barker DID get there? After what I'm sure was an agonizingly long wait for the photo (been there!), Ma Barker indeed got the win and the place went nuts saluting a very game filly winning her first race since her maiden at Turf Paradise. The first Daily Double of the season: $6!

The chalk parade continued in the third as Tahitian Queen romped keying a $15 pick 3! Wow... The upside for me in this race? Tahitian Queen was ridden by Jose Ferrer who is picking up the mount on Fizzy Pop in Sunday. More on that in the next post later today.

Finally, in the 4th, it was bombs away as Engaging Lover blew up the tote board at 25-1 for Harvey Berg and jockey Luis Medina. Bernell Rhone's comebacker Belicheck - off over a year until his start at Tampa a few weeks ago - combined for an exacta payout of over $300. Amazingly enough, a husband was telling his wife behind me - "I told you! I told you!" The feeling of KNOWING regarding a 25-1 shot. Rarely happens, but when it does...

Finally my stomach started to remind the rest of my body that it was dinner time. At Canterbury Park, choices abound. On the main level there are two main bars - one near the top of the stretch, the other just past the finish line. These bars bookend a snack bar, pizza and pasta and a Mexican stand as well as a small restaurant inside the card club. The fabled Canterbury Nut Lady also operates her stand as you head up to the Mezzanine.


The Legendary Canterbury Nut Lady


As you head up the escalator, there is a Famous Dave's BBQ stand, another snack bar and a shout out to the "Great Minnesota Get Together" (below) - many of you would probably call it our State Fair - where you can get fries, foot longs and, of course, Pronto Pups (corn dogs to the rest of the world)!


A taste of the Minnesota State Fair

Finally, upstairs in the Clubhouse (below) is another snack bar, the Clubhouse Buffet and the Park Restaurant. Choices for literally every taste and budget. I went for a slice of pizza which was better than any "venue" pizza you've ever had - and plenty of pizzeria's as well!

Clubhouse seating at Canterbury Park

Dinner leads me in to the 'specials' that are run at Canterbury. Each racing day, from Thursday to Sunday has a theme attached to it. Friday nights are Minnesota's Finest Happy Hour with live music on the apron, 1/2 price pizza, drink specials and contests. Saturdays are Classic Saturdays with Classic Cars on display, a giveaway, other food and drink specials and a $10,000 Pick Six pool guarantee. Sundays are Pepsi Family Day which features pony rides, face painting, a petting zoo and a kids "Race the Track" after the final race. When Thursday racing returns in a few weeks it'll bring the return of buck night which is just as it implies: $1 admission, $1 hot dogs, $1 Pepsi, $1 nachos, beer specials and a "Who do you like today contest?" with the prize of a $20 win, place, show wager. Solid daily promotions, good, affordable food and exciting racing action - a definite winning recipe.


Live band grace the Canterbury apron every Friday night

There is also something else about the crowd at the Shakopee oval - it's young. There were plenty of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings around as well as families. These days this is an anomaly when you head out to the racetrack. Maybe it's because we're a summer meet? Maybe because we run in the evenings during the week? I went ahead and asked a group of younger folks sitting behind me what their reasons were for picking the racetrack. The number one answer was fun! This was followed by the excitement of wagering and, interestingly enough, the puzzle of trying to figure out a race and the feeling you get when you nail one. They all agreed as well that it was an inexpensive night out. Five dollars in, inexpensive food (if you stick with the specials) and you control your wagering budget. They can all hang out together and make a lot of noise and pit their skills against each other. It was a mighty encouraging conversation. I don't know if we're unique in Minnesota, but it would be nice to see this trend spread throughout the country.

I was fortunate enough to run into old partner Brian (of Somerset Sam and Somerset Wish fame). It was great catching up with him and a special congratulations on his engagement to longtime girlfriend Andrea! It was also fortunate as my choice for the 6th race, Henry the K, ran off the board. We got so caught up in talking, I never placed the bet. So thank you, Brian!

In the finale of the evening, a Minnesota bred Maiden Special Weight contest, partner Janet Weber (breeder of Miss Belle Express) had a homebred running, Tahkodha Bill. Bill had a bought with seconditis last year and was trying to break that streak on his return. While it didn't happen (he was placed 3rd after being interfered with in the stretch), it was great to catch up with Janet and her entourage: Linda, John and Vickie. John and Vickie also are partners with Janet in the filly Standing Rock who races Sunday in the 3rd, just before Fizzy Pop's race so we'll be there to root them on!

The final attendance figure was 7,482 which was significantly less than the 10,000 plus in attendance last year, but a chilly, overcast, very windy Friday night with the chance of rain and thundershowers I'm sure kept plenty of folks away. Again, last year was Derby Day, sunny and warm after a long cold winter and most of the Spring. It's very difficult to make any kind of fair comparison. By comparison, day 2 - Preakness Day and sunny (though still rather chilly) - drew another 9,000+ fans.  A solid opening two days in our little corner of racing heaven.

For more on Canterbury's opener, see Jim Wells official Canterbury blog.

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