All the ingredients were in place for a grand finale Saturday at Canterbury Park. The Shakopee track was set to end a 53-day season with 13 races, and Canterbury officials anticipated the large fields could push wagering above $2 million.
Instead, they got another dose of disappointment. When the main track failed to dry out after rain Friday, unsafe track conditions forced Canterbury to cancel the final 10 races on the card. That brought a deflating end to a season in which consistently small fields spurred a steep decline in wagering, creating more uncertainty for Minnesota's horse racing industry.
Average daily handle on Canterbury's races fell by 42% this season to $887,835. On-track handle slipped 3% despite increased attendance, and out-of-state wagering — which fueled record handle in each of the previous three years — plummeted by 46%.
Horse racing is facing tough times nationally, with wagering declining even at prestigious tracks such as Saratoga and Del Mar. The problem was compounded at Canterbury by lower purses, which made it harder to attract enough horses for consistently robust race cards. With fields averaging only 6.53 horses per race, and favorites winning nearly half the time, horseplayers looking for big payouts took their money elsewhere.
"This year has been challenging, with the handle decrease, the short fields and lots of favorites winning," said Randy Sampson, Canterbury's chairman and CEO. "We're all trying to figure out how to improve on that for next year."
It will not be easy. Track officials are still trying to find a way to replace more than $7 million per year in purse funds that went away last winter, with the expiration of Canterbury's 10-year deal with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC). The loss of those funds caused daily purses to fall 21% this year, and this summer's drop in handle means less money was generated for next year's purses.
The number of Minnesota-bred racehorses also is tumbling, which will make it even harder to increase field size. Escalating costs and uncertainty about purses are leading more owners and breeders to cut back or exit the business altogether.
Only 78 thoroughbred foals have been registered in Minnesota this year. According to the Jockey Club's records, the all-time low is 118.
"Even people who have been very positive for many years, we're starting to see them get rid of their mares," said Scott Rake, a longtime thoroughbred breeder and owner from Elko New Market. "We just don't have a metric that's positive.
"It's incredibly worrisome. These are sad times for horse racing in Minnesota."
An uncertain future
The final two days of racing drew several fields of 10 or more horses, as trainers chased the last checks of the summer. A 13-race card Wednesday generated $2.4 million in handle, and Saturday's card was on pace for a similar number. But it was more typical to see only five or six horses in Canterbury's starting gate.
Without the SMSC money, total purses fell by more than $5.4 million, a 35% reduction from last year. Canterbury tried to lessen the blow by running fewer race days, which allowed the track to keep daily purses near $200,000. It still had to reduce purses by about $52,000 per day and eliminate some stakes races, which contributed to a 10% drop in field size.
Sampson is working with horsemen's groups on a plan that would keep purses about the same next summer. Chris Merz, Canterbury's senior director of racing operations, will recruit horsemen more aggressively in the offseason; he also is streamlining Canterbury's menu of races and fine-tuning incentives, such as bonus payments and loan programs.
The track's problems aren't unique. Sampson noted others also are seeing smaller fields as the U.S. foal crop continues to decline. Handle is down 4.09% nationally this year, with decreases of 9% at both Saratoga and Del Mar.
But the unpredictability of purses has magnified those issues at Canterbury. The supply of state-bred horses is critical to its success, and Minnesota's foal crop has been cut in half over the past nine years, with only 128 thoroughbred foals born in the state last year.
"You can't make a race card without Minnesota-bred horses," Rake said. "But there's been a dramatic increase in training expenses, and an unprecedented cut in purses. People don't expect to make a bunch of money in this sport, but you can only lose so much."
Rake believes it will take a major infusion of funds — ideally from additional gaming — to lift purses to a level that would sustain the industry. Getting a cut of legalized sports betting would be "a little bit of help," he said, and Sampson will make that case to the state Legislature next year.
Though no bill was passed last spring, there were proposals to give Canterbury and Running Aces, the harness track in Columbus, a small cut of tax revenue generated by sports betting. Sampson does not view that as a long-term solution.
"We believe the tracks and the tribes should have the ability to get licenses," he said. "We'll be engaged [in lobbying] earlier and be more vocal."
Looking toward next summer, Sampson envisions a season similar to the one that ended Saturday. He expects to run about the same number of days, though Canterbury might stretch the season out over a longer time frame, with fewer cards each week.
The track also plans improvements, including some new barns and a nutritionist to work with jockeys.
"We need to send a positive message to the horsemen that we're going to do everything we can to keep our racing competitive, attract horses for next year and put on a successful meet," Sampson said. "A commitment to live racing has been a big part of our culture from the beginning. That hasn't changed."
HOW CANTERBURY PARK'S SLOWER 2023 COMPARES WITH 2022
With smaller purses this season, Canterbury Park saw fewer horses enter its races, which generated less betting. That ended three years of record wagering at the Shakopee track, with handle dropping to its lowest levels since 2019. Here's how this summer's numbers compare with last year.
Race days: 53 in 2023, 64 in 2022 (change of -17%)
Total handle: $47,055,254 in 2023, $97,613,801 in 2022 (-52%)
Average daily handle: $887,835 in 2023, $1,525,216 in 2022 (-42%)
Average on-track handle: $148,979 in 2023, $153,548 in 2022 (-3%)
Average out-of-state handle: $738,856 in 2023, $1,371,668 in 2022 (-46%)
Attendance: 4,929 in 2023, 4,243 in 2022 (+16%)
Total purses: $10,270,447 in 2023, $15,715,307 in 2022 (-35%)
Average daily purses: $193,782 in 2023, $245,552 in 2022 (-21%)
Field size: 6.53 in 2023, 7.28 in 2022 (-10%)
CANTERBURY PARK SEASON CHAMPIONS
Horse of the year: Doctor Oscar
Sprinter, older horse: Doctor Oscar
Grass horse, older filly/mare: Midnight Current
3-year-old colt/gelding: Jose Patio
3-year-old filly: Cupids Crush
2-year-old: Relentlessly Fast
Quarter horse: Relentlessly Fast
Claimer: Lock It Down
Thoroughbred jockey: Harry Hernandez
Thoroughbred trainer: Joel Berndt
Thoroughbred owner: Lothenbach Stables
Quarter horse jockey: Edwin Escobedo
Quarter horse trainer: Jason Olmstead
Quarter horse owner: Tom Maher