'Downward spiral.' What if troubled Canterbury Park fails?

Horse racing is an inherently optimistic business. For Minnesota's horse owners and breeders, every foal romping in the pasture and every horse saddling up at Canterbury Park represents a dream just waiting to happen.

That hope still runs through the stable area at Canterbury, which begins a 54-day racing season Saturday. But there's also a darker sentiment hanging over the Shakopee track. A sharp reduction in purse funds last year accelerated a decline in Minnesota's thoroughbred breeding industry, and bills being considered by state lawmakers have heightened fears about the sport's future here.

"We're seeing the beginning of a downward spiral," said Richard Bremer, of Lake City, who has bred and raced thoroughbreds for 30 years. "We love this industry. But I'm desperately concerned it's going to die."

The expiration of a decade-long deal with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) blew a hole in Canterbury's purse fund that the track has been unable to fill. Without the tribe's contribution, purses fell to $11 million last year, down from $15.7 million in 2022.

That sent a ripple effect through the state's racing industry. Owners moved horses to tracks in other states offering more prize money. Total wagering plummeted by $50 million, as Canterbury cut 10 days from its usual schedule and horseplayers were turned off by the smaller fields. Breeders and owners saw less opportunity to recoup their investment, causing them to trim operations or exit the business.

There are other threats on the horizon. Current proposals to legalize sports betting in Minnesota would not allow it at the state's horse tracks, and Canterbury officials say sports wagering will siphon gambling dollars away from its business — which would further reduce purses. Lawmakers also have introduced a bill to prohibit historical horse racing, a machine-based betting game that track officials said could generate $5.9 million in purse money per year.

As Canterbury Park opens its 30th season of racing, many in the industry wonder whether its time is running short.

"I worry that it might not be viable in just a couple of years," horse owner Justin Revak said. "Most people will keep coming here as long as they can. But without more purse money, the clock is ticking."

The breeder

As one of the more successful breeders in Minnesota, Bremer doesn't want to get out of the business. It might not be up to him.

"This spring, my banker gave me an ultimatum," he said. " 'Have a good year this year, or you have to be done.' "

Bremer estimated he and his wife, Cheryl Sprick, can have as much as $50,000 invested in a horse before it begins racing. If purses are too low, breeders have no chance to recoup their costs or make money when they race or sell their horses. As the SMSC agreement neared its end, Minnesota breeders started to worry that purses would fall, increasing their economic risk.

Some cut back their operations or quit altogether. Many sent their mares to have their foals in other states; this spring, Bremer and Sprick sent three to Iowa, where purses are fattened by casino money. That caused Minnesota's thoroughbred foal crop to plunge from 251 a decade ago to 78 last year.

It's likely to be around 70 this year, Bremer predicted. The decline spells big trouble for Canterbury, which depends on Minnesota-bred horses to make up 30-45% of its fields. In a few years, Bremer said, it's possible there could be only three or four horses in Canterbury's stakes races for young Minnesota-breds.

"If we get to that point, with no hope things are going to improve, that will be the nail in the coffin," Bremer said. "If there are no horses, there's no racing."

The owner

Revak's stable, Rocket Wrench Racing, has won 26% of its races since he started it in 2012. It's been fun, but it hasn't been profitable at Canterbury.

"We've done well, and we're just breaking even," Revak said. "Right now, the math just doesn't work."

Revak's business assembles ownership groups for thoroughbreds running at Canterbury and in other states. His stable will have eight to 12 horses in Shakopee this summer, and Revak estimated each one will rack up costs of about $16,000 during the 4½-month season. That includes fees for transportation, supplies, trainers, grooms, veterinarians, horseshoers and exercise riders.

Canterbury officials expect a total horse population of about 1,100. Using Revak's estimate, that adds up to around $17.6 million in expenses for owners. With about $10.4 million in purse money available, it's not a winning equation.

If Canterbury's purses returned to the 2022 level of $15.7 million, Revak said that would "turn things in the right direction." If not, he could focus on racing at tracks where other gaming is beefing up purses.

But for a guy who moved next door to Canterbury Park so he could drive a golf cart to the track, nothing compares to running in Minnesota.

"What I fear is, without a level playing field for Canterbury to compete for gambling dollars, there will be a day when I can't bring my horses here," Revak said. "That would kill me."

The veterinarian

Though Dr. Zach Badura spent his childhood in Minnesota, he and his family now reside in Oklahoma. He still spends summers here, caring for about 75% of the racehorses at Canterbury Park.

Badura has practiced primarily at Canterbury for eight years. When purses dropped last year, fewer horses came to Shakopee. The result: a 35% to 40% decline in his gross revenue.

"The economics are straightforward," said Badura, who employs a second vet and at least two assistants each summer. "People are going to send their horses where the money is."

The larger business of Canterbury Park keeps many small businesses humming, including Badura's practice. He's had offers to relocate to other states where the racing industry is thriving. Like many people, he is willing to make less money at Canterbury — up to a point.

"This is home," Badura said. "But there's definitely concern among people who rely on this place for a source of income."

The trainer

Win or lose, racehorses have to eat. They need shoes and medical care and grooms to look after them.

Trainer Tony Rengstorf writes a lot of checks to a lot of people as the boss of a 25-horse stable. While inflation has pushed his costs up, Canterbury's lower purses have put a financial squeeze on Rengstorf and his horse owners.

"You hope your day rate covers the bills," Rengstorf said, referring to the daily fee owners pay for a horse's training, housing, food and routine care. "The trainer gets 10% of the purse when you win, so there's pressure on me to win some races to put some money in my pocket.

"I won't sugarcoat it. It's pretty tough right now."

A native of New Ulm, Rengstorf has been training at Canterbury since 1990. He currently employs eight to 10 people and is proud to support the local economy, buying hay from a Prior Lake farm, grain from Belle Plaine and stall bedding from Lakeville.

He has seen some trainers and horse owners leave the business as Canterbury's economics get more challenging. Rengstorf doesn't like to think about what could happen, but he can't ignore it.

"If Canterbury closed, it would impact the local community and the businesses that depend on racing," he said. "We're all doing what we can to help because we love this place."

The feed dealer

Veterans of Minnesota's racing industry have already lived through one shutdown. Canterbury Downs lasted eight seasons before closing in 1992, following the state's approval of tribal casinos, the lottery and charitable gaming.

That killed Joe Palma's business as a feed and bedding dealer. He worked as a carpenter during the two years the track lay empty, but when live racing resumed in 1995, he got right back into his former trade.

Palma Enterprises sells nearly 1,000 tons of grain and hay on the Canterbury grounds each summer, along with countless bales of wood shavings used as stall bedding. Many of Palma's suppliers are Minnesota farmers, and he has two employees working for him. Having lost his livelihood once, he knows exactly what a second Canterbury shutdown would mean.

"I'd be out of business," Palma said. "I do worry about that. I spent all my life building this, and if [Canterbury] closes, I'd have nothing."

Palma is hearing some pessimism from his customers. He's putting his faith in Canterbury CEO Randy Sampson, whose family led the effort to buy the track and reopen it in 1995.

But with the state Legislature looking at banning historical horse racing and leaving the tracks out of sports-betting bills, Palma is concerned there could be too many obstacles to overcome.

"This industry is big for Minnesota," he said. "I hope the politicians notice that."