Randy Sampson has been an owner of Canterbury Park since he purchased it in 1994 with his dad, Curt Sampson, and Dale Schenian.
Known as Canterbury Downs when it opened in 1985, the horse race track closed in the early 1980s and re-opened as Canterbury Park a year after the Sampsons and Schenian purchased it.
Canterbury Park began its 34th season of racing May 18 and will continue through mid-September. In addition to horse racing, there also is a card room, a concert series, craft shows and a multi-use development under construction.
Sampson serves as the chairman and CEO of Canterbury Park and continues to oversee the track and its holdings on a daily basis, and he will be involved in a memorial tribute Tuesday at the track for his father, who passed away last summer.
The Pioneer Press chatted with Randy Sampson about the track, where it’s been and where it’s headed.
The racing industry in Minnesota is in good shape. It’s not that great all across the country. There is a shortage of horses. There are less thoroughbreds being bred today. There are challenges getting new owners into the game. We have a somewhat aging base of horse owners. A lot of the effort we are putting in now is to encourage new people and younger people to get in the game owning and breeding,
Minnesota is definitely in better shape than a lot of the country. This year our purses are at the highest level ever. Our barn area is almost full with 1,400 horses. We have more horses there than we’ve had in the last few years.
Our racing product is really as good as it’s ever been. Just last week, we had our biggest day of the year with our Mystic Lake Derby and Lady Canterbury and Mystic Lake Mile. We actually had a new named race, the Curtis Sampson Stakes, and we set a record for handle at $3.7 million.
We were featured on Fox Sports 2, the national Fox Sports channel. We were the featured track that night. We really got the attention of the country and our out-of-state handle has been record numbers for us. The racing fans and wagers around the country are definitely paying attention.
The general overview is that the breeding industry in Minnesota has declined some over the last few years, as it has in virtually every state, but the state of the actual racing at Canterbury this year is really in good shape with good purses and good fields of horses and a great jockey colony.
Arlington (Park racetrack), in Chicago, is one of the most beautiful racing venues anywhere in a major market. And they have announced that this is going to be their last year of racing and they’re going to be redeveloping that property. Over the years, there has been a gradual reduction in the number of tracks around the country.
It’s a long-term issue. I don’t see anything changing in the next 10 years or so, but it really is hard to know what the long-term future of racing is. When I look at the challenges of the industry, recruiting new owners is a big one and help is another one. Labor is very important in horse racing. As you know, horses require care, especially when they’re in training and at the track, and it’s becoming harder and harder for the trainers to find help.
We’re certainly optimistic at Canterbury that we have a long-term future there. We’ve been fortunate. Obviously, I can say when we bought the track in ’94, there were a lot of people, probably including me and my dad, that weren’t sure it was going to work. We were committed to giving racing another chance in Minnesota, but there were a lot of people at the time saying, “Well, they seem like nice guys from Hector, but I don’t know if they can make this work after it had been closed due to financial problems.”
So when we first bought it, there was uncertainty as to how long we could survive. Would we be able to make it profitable? We have been virtually every year showing a profit. Generally fairly modest profits, but at least we’re making money. And 26 years later, we’re really having as good racing as we’ve ever had. So it isn’t even a case of just hanging on. It’s continuing to see the racing product thrive here in Minnesota.
Long term (the impact of COVID-19) is yet to be determined. The crowds are coming back, but not at the level they were pre COVID. From a financial standpoint and from a employee standpoint, in particular, it was incredibly difficult that we literally had to shut down for five months. We were shut down for basically three months in the spring and then another two months in the fall/winter. Who ever thought that coming into 2020, we were going to be completely shut down? No card room, no simulcasting, no nothing. Just an empty building for five months.
And so a lot of employees were furloughed. A number of them ended up not coming back or their positions were eliminated because of the reduction of revenues. We’ve estimated that our bottom line was probably impacted to the tune of roughly $5 million.
Our revenues went down by $30 million or something, but the expenses went down too because of being shut down. So the net net was roughly about a $5 million impact. It was very, very significant to the company and the shareholders. But fortunately we went into it without any debt. We had had some cash reserves and we’ve managed to come out of it still with a healthy financial structure.
What I’m most proud of, or that our family is proud of and where I get the most satisfaction is, just bringing racing back. Having racing fans constantly coming up and saying, “Thanks for keeping this place open. We love racing.”
From the business standpoint, the two main turning points for us when things were starting to get difficult in terms of purses and racing was, first, when we were able to pass the card room legislation in ’99, and open the card room in 2000. That is our biggest revenue source. It is what has financially kept the company viable and allowed us to continue to put on a great racing program. Without that, we probably would not still be able to be racing.
And then the second thing is when we were able to reach an agreement with Mystic Lake on the purse enhancement agreement in 2012 (to receive $75 million over 10 years). That significantly boosted our purses and really helped the racing industry, helped us be competitive. And to this day, when I say we’ve got 1,400 horses and our purses are a record, that is in part due to the Mystic Lake agreement.
So that was a major accomplishment. And when I say it’s a tricky part of the conversation, we’ve got this year, and then one more year left in that initial 10-year agreement. And the obvious question we’re getting from everybody is, “Is it going to get extended? What’s the status of it?” Basically, all I can say is discussions and negotiations are ongoing as to an extension.
One wish list (item) certainly could be sports betting. That is obviously something that a number of tracks and states have started to move forward with. So that’s something we’re watching. Right now, our agreement with Mystic Lake precludes us from lobbying or pursuing that, but that certainly is out there as a potential option in the future, and hopefully the tribes will support it moving forward. That’s something that we have followed in other states and certainly see as a business opportunity that could be helpful for Canterbury.
The other primary business enhancement or growth area for the company has been developing our property. When we bought the track, one of the things we knew was that, even if the racing business turned out to be difficult, we had a real valuable real estate asset that in the future could be developed and monetized. We’ve got a beautiful apartment building. That was the first phase. We’ve got a bunch of dirt work being done on some townhomes and a senior co-op (facility). We’ve got an office building that’s almost completed and part of the development, a beautiful office building.
We’re developing our 300-acre property into, not just a racetrack, but a really unique, mixed-use development.
And so that’s something that we’ve made some great progress in the last few years, and I’m really excited to see in the next five or 10 years that development continue. And I do believe that the types of things we’re trying to do will be complementary to the racing and entertainment and card-room business. If we have hotels and restaurants and other entertainment venues as well as residential, it just creates more opportunity for cross business where people are living in those apartments right across the parking lot. Hopefully they’re more likely to walk on over and play some cards, or come to the races, or have dinner, or go to the craft show or the snowmobile races.
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Author: Bob Sansevere