SHAKOPEE, Minn. -- The big hand hadn't even hit the five on the clock when Bernell Rhone arrived at Canterbury Park. The sun was still an hour away from peeking up over the horizon. Rhone's here at this time every morning, seven days a week. The race horse trainer from St. Peter has staked a good portion of his life at this track; his wife and children work here. His kid's spouses work here. Even his kids spouse's parents are connected to the track.
"We're into it for the sport but we've got to make money, we can't afford to keep losing money," the longtime trainer said. Rhone put the first horse on the Canterbury track back in 1985 and he's won more races than any other trainer in Shakopee. He's seen the economic ups and downs; he hates to admit Minnesota thoroughbred breeding is at an all-time low.
"You start to see fewer and fewer yearlings up for sale because there are fewer opportunities to make money with those horses here in the state," Horse Owner Ted Grevelis said. Grevelis is also a member of the MN Thoroughbred Association Board.
Only 131 foals were registered with the MN Racing Commission in 2011, that's less than half of what was registered in 2008. The breeding industry seemed to hit a tipping point; a lot of trainers, jockeys and horse owners searching for bigger purses left the state. The handle, the amount wagered at the track in a given year, also dipped. 2011's handle was down around $90 million from its all time high reached in 1986.
Track officials had been working on a Racino package for more than a decade. The idea was to add slot machines to Canterbury that would make the track more money for racing payouts, which would in turn jump start the breeding and racing industry. The plan never found any traction in the legislature.
"This agreement couldn't have come at a better time," Canterbury President and CEO Randy Sampson told reporters at a press conference on June 4th. The Park has inked a deal with the nearby Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community where the SMSC would contribute $75 million to track purses over the next 10 years. The pair would also enter into a multi-million dollar marketing agreement; track officials would drop their quest for Racino. Running Aces Harness Racing Track near Forest Lake was not a part of this agreement.
"When fully implemented, these enhancements will more than double our current purse structure," Canterbury's CEO Sampson explained.
It was the shot in the arm that folks around the race track had been waiting for. "I would love to see a Minnesota-bred in the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders Cup. It would be phenomenal. It's going to take some time to get there but that's what good purses here and the nice opportunity to make a return on an investment will do," horse owner and writer Ted Grevelis remarked.
The next step would be making Canterbury a "Top 25" track in the nation. "A lot of people stuck through it, through the hard times. Some of them were just diehards. They didn't want to give up," Trainer Bernell Rhone concluded.
(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)