Canterbury Park racetrack turns 25by Cathy Wurzer, Minnesota Public Radio
"And they're off and running in Minnesota!" announcer Tony Bentley exclaimed as the bugle call faded and the first thoroughbred horses exploded down the track at Canterbury Downs. It was June 26, 1985.
Gov. Rudy Perpich predicted it would be an economic engine for the state and proclaimed it a step toward his goal of making Minnesota "Paris, London and Vienna all rolled into one."
A quarter century later, the track, now called Canterbury Park, has had its ups and downs. But it's survived, and veteran horse racing handicapper Steve Davidowitz said, "It's one of the nicer facilities of its size anywhere in the country."
Wagering on horses was illegal in Minnesota before Canterbury. It took a constitutional amendment to build the track.
The Star Tribune hired Davidowitz to educate Minnesotans about the new sport.
"I wrote two columns a week taking the history of the game all the way back to Queen Anne in England through the Revolutionary War in the United States, right up through the opening of Canterbury," Davidowitz said. He spent eight years covering the track.
The opening was by all accounts a success. A crowd of 15,000 showed up that first day. And in the first two years, 10,000 people filled the stands for every summer race.
But then things went south. Davidowitz said the "downward spiral" began when the owners blew $10 million on expensive amenities including new grandstand seats that didn't pay for themselves.
That left less prize money to pay the winners of the races. Smaller purses meant the best trainers took their horses elsewhere.
"When they left the quality of racing dropped, and when the quality of racing dropped, the attendance dropped, and when the attendance dropped the handle dropped, and when the handle dropped they couldn't make money," Davidowitz said.
The track closed in 1992, and didn't reopen again until 1994.
Today, Davidowitz calls the track "somewhat successful," thanks to new ownership and the addition of a poker room in 2000.
If the Legislature wants the track to thrive, Davidowitz says it needs to allow slot machines, too -- a proposal that has gained little traction. But if that doesn't happen, he predicts Canterbury will still survive.
"There are a lot of people in the state and in the region who love the game," Davidowitz said. "It's the best game I have ever seen -- better than chess, better than bridge. It's more intellectually challenging and more beautiful."
- Morning Edition, 06/25/2010, 6:45 a.m.