SHAKOPEE, Minn. (WCCO) – Sunday is the biggest day of the year for horse racing in Minnesota – the annual Festival of Champions at Canterbury Park.
It is a very important day to everyone involved in the sport locally, especially as Canterbury celebrates 20 years since re-opening, because of what happened two decades ago.
In 1992, horse racing in Minnesota was really struggling. Crowds at Canterbury had dwindled to just a couple thousand a night. And rumors were swirling that Ladbroke — Canterbury’s British owner — was planning to close the track for good at the end of the year.
So a group of Minnesota horsemen came up with this crazy idea – they’d rent the track from Ladbroke after the season ended for one day of racing completely restricted to Minnesota horses.
“You could view it two ways,” Randy Sampson, a part of that group, said. “One was, if this is gonna be it, we’re going to go out with a bang, was really part of that. If they’re gonna shut this thing down, we’re gonna have one final day that we really put on a great show for the fans and a great opportunity for the horsemen. (And two), we certainly hoped that it would stimulate (interest and) show Ladbroke and show the public that there is still interest in horse racing.”
Steve Erban was also a part of that group.
“When we made the presentation to the track, it’s something I’ll never forget,” he said. “They all started laughing at us.”
Ladbroke had no interest.
“They were reluctant,” Sampson said, but they allowed it to happen.
And it probably saved horse racing in Minnesota.
A crowd of nearly 11,000 showed up that day for the first Festival of Champions – five times the normal size.
“And that really told us that if we get the local business people behind it,” Sampson said, “Get the local breeders and everybody working together, that racing does have a chance to be successful.”
Three months later, Ladbroke shuttered the track, ending thoroughbred racing in Minnesota.
But not the hope of reviving it.
The success that day fueled the belief that the sport could make it here, keeping the dream alive until Randy and Curtis Sampson could buy the track two years later and re-start racing in 1995.
“A lot of those same people that were organized to try to help with Festival, ended up being part of the group that resurrected racing in Minnesota,” Sampson said.
Now, as Canterbury celebrates its 20th season since re-opening, it makes you wonder: What if Ladbroke had said no, that fateful day in 1992? Or if only a small crowd showed up? Would Canterbury be here today? Would the last 20 years have ever happened?
“That’s a good question,” Sampson said. “There certainly is a likelihood that would have been the end of it.”
“Without it, I don’t think it ever would have happened,” he said. “Nobody would have believed it.”
Sunday’s races start at 12:45 pm. The Festival of Champions is no longer held on the last race day. Canterbury still has two weeks left.