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Neal: As Canterbury’s season begins, handicappers worried about gambling bill

Keith Valentine once made Canterbury Park his destination three times a week. Then he got married.

"Now I come about once a week," Valentine, from Burnsville, said while smiling.

At least his wife, Laura, knows where he is. The two met at Plum's Neighborhood Grill and Bar in St. Paul. Their first date: Canterbury.

And Valentine could spend all his time with his honey at home if he chose to. All he has to do is pull out his smartphone and wager on races at tracks across the country. But it wouldn't be the same.

"There's an excitement level out here," he said, "and it is exciting to be out here following the sport."

More than two hours before the 30th season of racing at Canterbury Park began on Saturday, the hardcore wagerers arrived, greeted each other then opened their racing forms.

While doing so, they fretted about the future of the track and where gambling is headed in this state.

The legislative session ends on Monday, and there is a gambling bill being discussed. I approached a table of four gentlemen handicappers, and we all discovered we had one thing in common: we have driven to Iowa to wager on sporting events. So, yes, a gambling bill would be good for folks of that ilk. But within the latest bill is a ban on historical horse racing, or HHR.

HHR has been a boon for tracks in Kentucky, Virginia, Wyoming and other states. It uses a database of tens of thousands of old races to bet on. The presentation strips the names of the horses, jockeys, tracks and other identifying information so players can handicap without any advantages. To me, this is not a game of chance but one that takes skill. Opponents argue otherwise and claim the consoles resemble slot machines.

Our top writer, Rachel Blount, detailed in Saturday's editions how HHR could help Canterbury make up for the nearly $5 million in prize money lost when its 11-year deal with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community expired following the 2022 season. It also painted a perilous picture of Canterbury's future if HHR is banned. Also, the most recently known version of the bill gives casinos control of sports wagering. "Most recently" is important here, as horse trading (pun intended) often takes place in the final hours of sessions to get bills through.

Here's one compromise suggestion: accept the HHR ban while getting enough annual funding to at least make up for Canterbury's lost purse money.

"Any help would be good for this industry, considering how many people it employs in the state and the fact it has been here since 1985," Valentine said. "Unless someone wants to have a monopoly on all gambling."

Sitting a few feet from Valentine was Mark Lacount and his wife, Marilyn, also of Burnsville. Saturday was Mark Lacount's 70th birthday. While receiving pats on the back and a couple gifts, he was headed down to trackside to do what he and his wife annually do.

"I never miss a day of live racing," he said, "Not since my daughter graduated from high school in June 2009."

He sighed when asked if he was monitoring developments at the state capitol.

"We are hoping for the best," he said, "but if we don't get to have historical racing or we don't get $5 million a year for some reason, it's going to be tough.

"Last year was poor, very, very poor, from a horseplayer perspective."

On Saturday, an estimated crowd of over 6,000 attended the Canterbury opener. Many rooted for Mystik Dan to follow his Kentucky Derby win with a triumph in the Preakness. So there were groans of disappointment when he ran second. After all, a potential triple crown is great for business.

Most fans remained as the Canterbury card resumed, but there were many empty spaces where people once were. Was it because purses are down, sending better horses elsewhere?

In addition to the owners, trainers, jockeys and doctors who are part of this infrastructure, there are concession workers, bartenders, janitors and others who would be affected by Canterbury's demise.

After observing this, and speaking with some of the loyal gamblers, I left the park confused.

Isn't there enough money in this state for both sides to be happy?