State of Minnesota racing and breeding

When the gates open for Canterbury Park’s first race on May 3, 2019, it will mark the 25th season of operation under public ownership led by the Sampson and Schenian families. Minnesota racing was down and out for the count after debuting in 1985 at then-Canterbury Downs with much fanfare and seam-bursting crowds. Through management changes and the development of Native American gaming just down the street at Little Six and then Mystic Lake, the track spiraled downward into unprofitability before being mothballed by Ladbrokes in 1993.  In 1994, Curtis Sampson and Dale Schenian stepped in, reopened the racetrack and began the great Minnesota racing turnaround. One of Curtis’ sons, Randy, is the track’s current CEO and president while another son, Russell, runs the family’s racing and breeding operation.  “That’s the only reason this racetrack is here,” said Andrew Offerman, Canterbury’s Senior Director of Racing. “Horsemen bought it because this is what they wanted to do. There are certainly still differences of opinion between management and horsemen on what should be done on some issues, but the differences are so minor compared to what faces other places because of the people that are here running things.”  “We are fortunate here in Minnesota,” said Kay King, Executive Director of the Minnesota Thoroughbred Association, “that track management, the HBPA, owners, trainers—everyone can work together on a common cause. There is not the friction that you hear about elsewhere. I have people from other states tell me that they can’t believe that the MTA and the MQHRA work together on issues and put on a barbeque for backside workers together because in their states the Thoroughbred and quarter horse folks couldn’t get along long enough to do that.”  The track still had to compete with Native interests as well as stiff competition for the recreation dollar in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area.  In 2012, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC)—proprietors of Little Six and Mystic Lake Casinos—and the track entered into an historic joint marketing agreement, leaving their animus in the past and moving into the future as partners.  The agreement provided the purse account with $75 million over ten years. The track and SMSC agreed to work together to promote the region and resist the expansion of gaming. The pair teamed with the nearby Renaissance Festival and Valleyfair Amusement Park to market themselves as River South, an area in the south metro to stay and play.  Thanks to the agreement, purses have increased substantially. In 2011, the year prior to the agreement, total purse distribution equaled $6,172,707. For the 2018 meet, that amount nearly doubled, rising to $13,316,050.  Because some of the money from the SMSC agreement has been dedicated to the Minnesota-bred stakes program, breeding is also on the upswing. The year prior to the SMSC agreement, the foal crop was 153 registered foals. The 2013 crop—the first post agreement—jumped to 253 registered foals. The number since then has remained relatively steady with quality increasing every year.  The only requirement to have a Minnesota-bred foal is the mare has to be in the state by March 15 prior to foaling.  The tentative 2019 Canterbury Park Stakes schedule features 18 state-bred stakes with over $1.3 million up for grabs.  It is not only the owners of Minnesota-breds that are making money, but their breeders as well. While purse supplements for Minnesota-breds totaled $325,435 in 2018, breeder awards increased 4% over 2017 to $460,595, while stallion awards increased 2% to $85,527. Total added money, either breeding or racing, was $871,557 for 2018.  “I think you’re going to see some phenomenal pedigrees this year,” said Dave Dayon, owner of Wood-N-Wind Farm, a leading breeding and foaling farm in Minnesota. “We have a Quality Road and an Orb from this year, and I just got the list for 2019 that are coming in for Lothenbach Stables: we’ll have a Kitten’s Joy, two Malibu Moons, a Speightstown and others—and I have 14 mares from him this season.”  Breeder Dean Benson of Wood Mere Farm foaled out an American Pharoah colt earlier this year—the first time a Triple Crown winner has sired a Minnesota-bred.  “My client was very involved in Illinois, but he was seeing what has happened to that program so he decided to get involved in Minnesota,” said Benson. “And he did it in a big way.”  The increase in Minnesota-bred quality has also made its way into the sales ring.  The market for quality-bred horses is better than it has ever been. The 2018 MTA yearling sale had a six-figure horse for the first time in its history. The pairing of Discreet Cat and Gypsy Melody—a six-figure earning, stakes-winning mare—produced a colt that sold for $100,000 to Novogratz Racing Stable.  “I have a client who had a Quality Road,” said Benson. “He foaled in Kentucky but ended up being bought back in a Kentucky sale. If he had bred and sold him up here, I know he would have piqued the interest of the big owners, and he would have got the money for him.”  “Over the last few years we are slowly starting to see an increase in buyers here at our sale,” said King. “We’re starting to see buyers who realize that a Minnesota-bred can bring money. There was always that ‘glass ceiling’ of around $50,000, which was as high as folks would go for a Minnesota-bred. This year we shattered that with three of the forty horses sold, bringing more than $50,000 including the $100,000 gelding.”  King and her husband bred the sales topper from 2017, an Astrology colt out of former Minnesota champion Bella Notte named Notte Oscura, which sold for $37,000 to Paul Schaffer. Schaffer turned around and did what was thought to be impossible: he pin-hooked the Minnesota-bred in the 2018 April OBS Sale for $160,000.  In the October 2017 Fasig-Tipton yearling sale, a Minnesota-bred yearling became the highest priced gelding ever sold at auction. The son of Maclean’s Music and Mesa Mirage, bred by Almar Farms, brought $200,000. The yearling, subsequently named Mister Banjoman, won this year’s Shakopee Juvenile, a $75,000 unrestricted stakes race and finished the season with two wins and a second in four starts, only faltering in his turf debut in the Indian Summer Stakes at Keeneland.  Mr. Jagermeister, a Minnesota-bred and owned by trainer Valorie Lund and her sisters, has won seven of twelve starts, amassed $308,975 and finished second in the Prairie Gold Juvenile at Prairie Meadows and the Bachelor Stakes at Oaklawn.  “People are seeing that there is value to Minnesota-bred horses,” said King. “People are making wise breeding decisions.”  Quality pedigree Minnesota-breds are selling for considerably more money than ever—locally and around the country—and competing favorably against all comers.  “I go down into the paddock before races, and I see a lot of new people,” said Canterbury’s Offerman. “I go back and look them up and I see that they’ve been in the industry for years, live right here in Minnesota and never have participated in racing here. In the last four of five years, these owners have gone from sending up the occasional open horse to compete in a stake to buying these horses to participate and race at their home track.  “I talk to people all the time who, when they finally realize where we are located, recognize that there is a lot going on,” said Offerman. “We have four major sports teams, an MLS team, the Mall of America, several Fortune 50 companies headquartered here, and we’re less than 20 miles from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.”  “I think the Super Bowl last year helped break a lot of mystique,” said Dayon. “Even with the snow and everything else, people came up here and realized that ‘Hey, you can do things, you can go places and they don’t roll the sidewalks up at 10:00.’  “And when you come to the racetrack,” Dayon continued, “we have one the best backsides with barn quality and cleanliness than just about any other place in America.”  “Folks that have never been here say to me ‘This place is awesome,’” said King. “You get people here, and they see what we have to offer; and they quickly get over their misconception that we’re just some small, bull ring operation.”  “I had an interesting experience this year,” said Rick Bremer, who with his wife, Cheryl Sprick, have been multiple winners of the TOBA and Charles Bellingham Awards for excellence in breeding. “My sales agent had come up here from Kentucky to inspect yearlings this past spring and I said to him, ‘We’re racing tonight; you should come out to the track.’  “He came and was totally blown away,” said Bremer. “This was absolutely not what he was expecting. He didn’t expect to have this great a facility, this great a fan base. He never imagined that this many people would come to the races here. People just realize what a great place Canterbury is to race.”  “The people that I bring out to the racetrack think much the same way,” added Offerman. “They think that I’m bringing them to a dumpy county fair with a beat-up grandstand and falling-down backside, and they are always pleasantly surprised by what they experience.”  Minnesota is not only a great place to live, work and race, but the racing industry is still developing and maturing, indicating that the best is yet to come.  “What people don’t realize,” opined Offerman, “is that this is a relatively young pari-mutuel market. Patrons who are very energetic on the handicapping front were only 18, 19 years old when this facility opened. Now they are all 50-55 years old and want to participate in the industry on a different level and they have the means to do so now. Some of the best owners we have are people that learned to love the game when they were 20 years old. We’re not the same as other places that are in the third, fourth, fifth generation of this; we’re on our first.”  Though a relatively young racetrack and racing jurisdiction, Canterbury Park has been in the forefront of innovation and experimentation.  “The Thursday night ‘Buck Night’ has attracted more young people to the racetrack, and those people have stayed vested in the sport to this day,” said Dayon.  “The atmosphere participating in a race here on a day-to-day basis is like nowhere else in the country,” said Joe Scurto, deputy director of the Minnesota Racing Commission.  “There are so many winners’ circle photos here that are packed with people,” said King. “There is nothing sadder than when you see three people in the winners’ circle. Here you get family and friends involved, and the excitement on the apron with people cheering on horses is amazing.”  There are plenty of services that support racing in Minnesota as well.  “There is an excellent vet program at the University of Minnesota just north of the track in Minneapolis,” said Lisa Duoos Smrekar, owner of Dove Hill Farm, a breeding and foaling facility in New Prague. “We have some really great veterinary care here off the racetrack and a lot to offer as far as a whole industry from start to finish. We have some great foaling facilities, excellent trainers and jockeys that have ‘grown up’ here, if you will. Minnesota has talent, and that is felt across the industry.”  “Minnesota is horse country,” added Dayon. “We’ve had many stock horse champions, quarter horses, appaloosas, reining horses, cutting horse—champions from all breeds and disciplines here. This really is horse country.”  “Over the last ten to fifteen years management has reinvested about $25 million into the facility,” said Offerman. “Name another place that’s not Churchill Downs or a place that holds an elite Thoroughbred meet that can say that? Over the past 25 years, that current management has owned the racetrack, and there are only two small areas that have not been completely gutted and redone at least once and sometimes more than once.”  Offerman adds, “Canterbury was one of the last crown jewels built in racing, but it also has received more maintenance and care than your average racetrack over that period.”  Canterbury also recently completed a major renovation of the track surface from the foundation up in order to bring the quality of the racing surface back to its original specifications.  “There is reinvestment going on in all areas of racing,” said Scurto. “The racetrack is reinvesting, the breeders are reinvesting—much more than many other jurisdictions; and this is a great place to come race. There is a lot of uncertainty in some places from year to year. Here in Minnesota there is reinvestment and growth with every indication that it is going to continue.”  “You get all the benefits of a major market race venue with—and I know it’s cliché but it’s true—small town personal touches,” concluded Offerman. “We don’t have layers of management or regional and corporate offices. If a player, owner or trainer has a problem, they can come to me or Randy directly and we’ll get it taken care of.”  In all aspects of racing, including the track president, employees, trainers, breeders, jockeys and fans, Minnesota is becoming the place to breed and race.

By Ted Grevelis

When the gates open for Canterbury Park’s first race on May 3, 2019, it will mark the 25th season of operation under public ownership led by the Sampson and Schenian families. Minnesota racing was down and out for the count after debuting in 1985 at then-Canterbury Downs with much fanfare and seam-bursting crowds. Through management changes and the development of Native American gaming just down the street at Little Six and then Mystic Lake, the track spiraled downward into unprofitability before being mothballed by Ladbrokes in 1993.

In 1994, Curtis Sampson and Dale Schenian stepped in, reopened the racetrack and began the great Minnesota racing turnaround. One of Curtis’ sons, Randy, is the track’s current CEO and president while another son, Russell, runs the family’s racing and breeding operation.

“That’s the only reason this racetrack is here,” said Andrew Offerman, Canterbury’s Senior Director of Racing. “Horsemen bought it because this is what they wanted to do. There are certainly still differences of opinion between management and horsemen on what should be done on some issues, but the differences are so minor compared to what faces other places because of the people that are here running things.”

Kay King

“We are fortunate here in Minnesota,” said Kay King, Executive Director of the Minnesota Thoroughbred Association, “that track management, the HBPA, owners, trainers—everyone can work together on a common cause. There is not the friction that you hear about elsewhere. I have people from other states tell me that they can’t believe that the MTA and the MQHRA work together on issues and put on a barbeque for backside workers together because in their states the Thoroughbred and quarter horse folks couldn’t get along long enough to do that.”

The track still had to compete with Native interests as well as stiff competition for the recreation dollar in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area.

In 2012, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC)—proprietors of Little Six and Mystic Lake Casinos—and the track entered into an historic joint marketing agreement, leaving their animus in the past and moving into the future as partners.

The agreement provided the purse account with $75 million over ten years. The track and SMSC agreed to work together to promote the region and resist the expansion of gaming. The pair teamed with the nearby Renaissance Festival and Valleyfair Amusement Park to market themselves as River South, an area in the south metro to stay and play.

Thanks to the agreement, purses have increased substantially. In 2011, the year prior to the agreement, total purse distribution equaled $6,172,707. For the 2018 meet, that amount nearly doubled, rising to $13,316,050.

Because some of the money from the SMSC agreement has been dedicated to the Minnesota-bred stakes program, breeding is also on the upswing. The year prior to the SMSC agreement, the foal crop was 153 registered foals. The 2013 crop—the first post agreement—jumped to 253 registered foals. The number since then has remained relatively steady with quality increasing every year.

The only requirement to have a Minnesota-bred foal is the mare has to be in the state by March 15 prior to foaling.  

The tentative 2019 Canterbury Park Stakes schedule features 18 state-bred stakes with over $1.3 million up for grabs.

It is not only the owners of Minnesota-breds that are making money, but their breeders as well. While purse supplements for Minnesota-breds totaled $325,435 in 2018, breeder awards increased 4% over 2017 to $460,595, while stallion awards increased 2% to $85,527. Total added money, either breeding or racing, was $871,557 for 2018.

“I think you’re going to see some phenomenal pedigrees this year,” said Dave Dayon, owner of Wood-N-Wind Farm, a leading breeding and foaling farm in Minnesota. “We have a Quality Road and an Orb from this year, and I just got the list for 2019 that are coming in for Lothenbach Stables: we’ll have a Kitten’s Joy, two Malibu Moons, a Speightstown and others—and I have 14 mares from him this season.”

Dean Benson

Breeder Dean Benson of Wood Mere Farm foaled out an American Pharoah colt earlier this year—the first time a Triple Crown winner has sired a Minnesota-bred.

“My client was very involved in Illinois, but he was seeing what has happened to that program so he decided to get involved in Minnesota,” said Benson.  “And he did it in a big way.”

The increase in Minnesota-bred quality has also made its way into the sales ring.

The market for quality-bred horses is better than it has ever been. The 2018 MTA yearling sale had a six-figure horse for the first time in its history. The pairing of Discreet Cat and Gypsy Melody—a six-figure earning, stakes-winning mare—produced a colt that sold for $100,000 to Novogratz Racing Stable.

“I have a client who had a Quality Road,” said Benson. “He foaled in Kentucky but ended up being bought back in a Kentucky sale. If he had bred and sold him up here, I know he would have piqued the interest of the big owners, and he would have got the money for him.”

“Over the last few years we are slowly starting to see an increase in buyers here at our sale,” said King. “We’re starting to see buyers who realize that a Minnesota-bred can bring money. There was always that ‘glass ceiling’ of around $50,000, which was as high as folks would go for a Minnesota-bred. This year we shattered that with three of the forty horses sold, bringing more than $50,000 including the $100,000 gelding.”

King and her husband bred the sales topper from 2017, an Astrology colt out of former Minnesota champion Bella Notte named Notte Oscura, which sold for $37,000 to Paul Schaffer. Schaffer turned around and did what was thought to be impossible: he pin-hooked the Minnesota-bred in the 2018 April OBS Sale for $160,000.

In the October 2017 Fasig-Tipton yearling sale, a Minnesota-bred yearling became the highest priced gelding ever sold at auction. The son of Maclean’s Music and Mesa Mirage, bred by Almar Farms, brought $200,000. The yearling, subsequently named Mister Banjoman, won this year’s Shakopee Juvenile, a $75,000 unrestricted stakes race and finished the season with two wins and a second in four starts, only faltering in his turf debut in the Indian Summer Stakes at Keeneland.

Mr Jagermeister

Mr. Jagermeister, a Minnesota-bred and owned by trainer Valorie Lund and her sisters, has won seven of twelve starts, amassed $308,975 and finished second in the Prairie Gold Juvenile at Prairie Meadows and the Bachelor Stakes at Oaklawn.

“People are seeing that there is value to Minnesota-bred horses,” said King. “People are making wise breeding decisions.”

Quality pedigree Minnesota-breds are selling for considerably more money than ever—locally and around the country—and competing favorably against all comers.


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