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Canterbury's decision to open a good one

Shakopee track debuts on Derby day for first time in history

Knight Ridder Newspapers

SHAKOPEE, Minn. -- Track; officials are still smiling after opening weekend at Canterbury weekend.

The traffic was backed up onto U.S. 169 at 3 p.m. Saturday, 90 minutes past first post at Canterbury Park. The congestion was remindful of the grand early days of racing, when pari-mutuel wagering was Minnesota's only form of legalized gambling.

Long lines were the order of the day at wagering windows and concession stands as well, and the steps between the front entrance to the grandstand and the saddling paddock were packed with spectators sizing up the horses before all of the early races.

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The decision by management to open on Kentucky Derby day for the first time in track history was validated nearly everywhere a person looked as a crowd of 16,237, the largest since the track reopened in 1995, made for a busy day.

The crowd reminded Scott Stevens, who first rode at Canterbury in 1989, of some of the track's early years. "It was great," he said. "From the paddock, we could still see the cars coming in before the fourth race."

Track President and CEO Randy Sampson was surprised and pleased by the big turnout.

"It was parking like we've never seen before," he said. "We filled up the overflow lot and had to go into another lot. We've never had to do that before, and the total handle could be more than $2 million.''

That estimate included $738,539 wagered locally on the Derby and another $528,211 on the live races in Shakopee. The rest was from simulcast wagering and out-of-state betting on Canterbury races.

The highlight of the day was not only the Kentucky Derby but the fact that Mike Smith, a Canterbury Hall of Fame rider and star in Shakopee in the early years, brought in the winner, 50-1 long shot Giacomo. Afterward, he was interviewed on the track at Churchill Downs on NBC by Donna Barton Brothers, a former Canterbury riding champion.

Some of the folks who helped open Minnesota's only pari-mutuel racetrack in 1985 were present Saturday as well, and they described the atmosphere as a page from the glory years of racing in the state. Riders and fans alike seemed to enjoy the day.

"It's fun when (the fans) have fun,'' said Paul Nolan, who began riding at Canterbury in 1990. "It's fun to interact with them."

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