Adaptable, Innovative Canterbury Carves Out Place in Racing Landscape

Horses break out of the starting gate on the turf course at Canterbury Park. (Coady Photography)

Canterbury Park, in Shakopee, Minn., has long been hailed as a model for how to draw fans to the racetrack and build a great atmosphere. During the past two years, they’ve also made great strides in the arena of off-track wagering with significant increases.

Opened in 1985, the track came under its current management in 1995 and became known for having one of the best on-track atmospheres in the country. They maintained a schedule of racing Thursday through Sunday all summer long, attracting fans through a series of promotions and exciting events, including “Extreme Day,” featuring a series of unusual races.

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted all racetracks, but few more so than Canterbury Park. With limited on-track attendance for their 2020 season, which started about a month late, they knew they would have to change their game plan.

Turf racing at Canterbury. (Coady Photography)

When the Canterbury season opened on June 10, 2020, featuring limited on-track attendance, the schedule had a much different look than in past years. Canterbury raced Mondays through Thursdays, starting at 4:40 p.m. local time. By changing its schedule, Canterbury made itself much more visible to off-track players.

“When you have 6,500 people a day, and now you can’t have anywhere near that number, you have to try something different,” said Andrew Offerman, vice president of racing operations at Canterbury. “We saw what Fonner Park and Will Rogers Downs were able to do, shifting their schedules around and seeing big handle increases. We knew we’d have some competition but we were hoping for increases large enough to be able to sustain ourselves.”

The schedule change proved a success. Canterbury handled more than $68 million on its 2020 meet, smashing the previous handle record set in 2018 by more than $20 million. The high-water mark came on Sept. 16, when more than $2.6 million was wagered on the 13-race card. Most cards handled more than $1 million, a mark rarely hit prior to 2020.

That season has propelled Canterbury to new heights in 2021. With larger crowds now permitted, the schedule has changed a bit. Mondays have been dropped in favor of Sunday afternoons with the schedule also featuring live racing on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.

They’ve returned to a full slate of on-track promotions, including live music on Thursday nights, Family Fun days on Sundays, and a wide variety of special events, including Basset Hound racing, weiner dog racing, and Indian Horse Relay Racing, presented by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.

Thanks to continued brand exposure, handle remains very strong. More than $46 million has been wagered at Canterbury so far this year. Betting on Sunday cards has more than doubled compared with 2019, routinely cracking the $1 million mark. The July 3 card, featuring the very popular fireworks spectacular, handled just under $2 million. On June 23, a stakes-packed card handled a record $3,795,180.

A quality racing product has helped lift Canterbury. (Coady Photography)

“It’s very encouraging that we continue to have strong Sundays, both on-track and off-track,” said Offerman. “Our on-track success is a testament to our management and the work they’ve done. They really focused on building a family-friendly atmosphere. We’ve positioned ourselves as a gambling product and an entertainment product. It’s an exciting opportunity to go out and do something different on a weeknight or to go with the family on a Sunday afternoon.

“Off-track, we weren’t a name that resonated with people, but in the last year, with strong dirt racing on a regular basis, and large field size, it’s drawn a lot of people to us for the first time.”

Brian Arrigoni has been the on-track handicapper at Canterbury since 2016. He credits Canterbury’s ability to innovate for their popularity with fans and bettors.

“Their willingness to try new things over the years has continued to bring in new fans and keep fans around. While I’m an employee, I am also a gambler and bettor and I appreciate the moves management has made to try and be more competitive and bettor friendly. Eliminating the jackpot Pick 5 was a very bettor-friendly move, and then on top of it moving the takeout to 10% was something no one else had been willing to try. Fans have certainly been receptive to management's willingness to listen to the fans and try new things to keep fresh faces tuning in to Canterbury Park.”

Canterbury has also quickly become an attractive spot for owners. TK Kuegler, founder and managing partner of Wasabi Ventures Stables, began racing at Canterbury recently thanks to an outreach program by Joe Scurto of the Minnesota Racehorse Project. This year, Wasabi has about 12 horses stabled at Canterbury with three winners thus far from 21 starters.

No shortage of smiles at Canterbury. (Courtesy of Wasabi Ventures Stables)

“Canterbury is by far the best track in the country for understanding that it is [an] entertainment game,” Kuegler said. “They make the on-track product approachable and friendly. They get solid crowds every day of the week and they make the time between races entertaining and engaging. They also understand that there are many ways to make a profit as a track owner that is not just catering to a large online handle.”

Kuegler has also been impressed by the claiming activity at the Minnesota track.

“We were hoping to go there and be able to get a few horses, but the activity has been like Oaklawn! I think what the claiming activity says is that Canterbury has put together a great product and owners want to be a part of the story.”

Offerman is excited about Canterbury’s future: “The last couple of years have had a lot of positives, showing that we have a place in the national landscape. Watching the on-track crowd come back this year has been exciting. Having the chance to play to a local and national fanbase is exciting. We’ve got really passionate, excited fans that bring a unique on-track experience, and people have started to realize that we’re worth the trip. The experience is as exciting as anything I’ve seen across the country.”

“Racing needs more Canterbury Parks,” Kuegler said.

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