In an era when many well-established race tracks are struggling financially, it might seem an act of folly to build a new track in an area where there is no racing tradition and no horseplaying population.
But Canterbury Downs, which opened in Shakopee, Minn., yesterday afternoon, is going to be an instant success. Even conservative members of its management think the average daily attendance at Minnesota's first race meeting will exceed 12,000 -- a figure that would top any of Maryland's tracks by a big margin.
The politicians and racing officials who have created a new industry from scratch have done so many things right that Canterbury Downs could be the model for future U.S. tracks. Steve Davidowitz, a former Marylander who is covering racing for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, says, "The rest of the country ought to be paying close attention to the Minnesota experiment."
There was plenty of official skepticism about racing when a statewide referendum was held in 1982 to determine whether the citizens of Minnesota wanted parimutuel wagering. All seven gubernatorial candidates opposed the measure; so did newspapers, civic groups and religious organizations. But nearly 70 percent of the voters cast their ballots in favor of legal wagering.
Gov. Rudy Perpich had worried that racing might bring crime and scandal to his state, but after the referendum passed, he paid a visit to the Meadowlands in New Jersey and admitted, "The experience converted me. I hadn't really understood much about racing, but I saw how different a good track was, compared to what I had imagined." He vowed: "I'll find out how to get the best racing in the country."
Perpich appointed a good racing commission, which awarded the franchise for a track to a group backed by Santa Anita Race Track -- arguably the best-run thoroughbred operation in America. Santa Anita sent experienced officials to Minnesota to run the operation at Canterbury.
"There is an excellent mesh between the Santa Anita people and the Minnesota people," said Pat Dawson, the track's director of marketing. "There's a real commitment to doing things the right way. And it's a lot easier to start right, with the patron in mind, than to take an existing organism and turn it in a new direction."
The management has built an attractive plant, offered a solid purse structure and lured good stables from many other racing circuits, most of them from California, Kentucky and Arizona. But what is most striking about the new operation is its obvious concern for the public interest.
Minnesota's rules governing medication show how thoughtfully the state has fashioned its new industry. Butazolidin and Lasix are legal, but the use of each medication is tightly restricted. (To get Lasix, a horse must have been seen bleeding by the state veterinarian; he must be given the drug in a detention barn by the state vet).
The racing program will tell bettors which horses are getting which drugs, and indicate those who are getting Lasix for the first time. When the state established these rules, it also funded a two-year study of the drugs at the University of Minnesota. When it is completed, the state will review all its medication rules.
Plenty of other features of Minnesota racing will show the state's concern for its bettors:
The track is responsible for paying a staff of clockers. Horses must be identified to the clockers when they come on to the track for workouts. Thus Minnesota becomes the second state in the country (after California) to have a proper workout rule.
The public will be shown films of races from all the cameras the stewards use. No other thoroughbred track in the country offers its customers the same service.
Information centers around the track will show, among other things, up-to-the-minute, computerized records and win percentages for all jockeys and trainers at Canterbury Downs.
Even though potential customers aren't yet sophisticated enough to appreciate many of these nuances, Minneapolis has looked forward to the opening of the track with a lot of enthusiasm and civic pride. The Star-Tribune hired Davidowitz last year to give its readers months of indoctrination about the sport. The Chamber of Commerce held a kickoff luncheon Monday and 900 people paid $20 apiece to attend. To keep the track from being overrun on opening day, the track offered grandstand admission on an advanced-sale basis only -- and sold virtually all 15,000 tickets for each of this week's five racing days.
Few tracks in established racing areas can generate this kind of public enthusiasm. But few tracks are trying as hard as Canterbury Downs to generate that enthusiasm.