SHAKOPEE, Minn. — There was a time when the notion of a full-grown, mangy ostrich leaving three-pronged footprints in his pristine dirt track abhorred Randy Sampson.
But one glance around a packed-to-the-brim Canterbury Park on Saturday afternoon provided the complex’s president and CEO his yearly dose of validation that comes with Extreme Race Day.
“I frankly have to say when the idea came to me, I thought, ‘Why is anybody going to show up to watch camels and ostriches?'” said Sampson, who first instituted the event in 2007. “It didn’t seem all that interesting, and even when we did it the first time and there was a big crowd, I said, ‘Everybody wanted to see the novelty, but it’s probably not going to sustain.
“(Now) it’s the biggest day of the year every year.”
When animals native to Africa bred in Kansas show up in Minnesota, Canterbury’s usual cigar- and grill-scented air fuses with a more youthful, eclectic atmosphere. The regulars are still there — the guys in their 20s in weekend polos and designer sunglasses celebrating a bachelor party, the young entrepreneurs looking to burn some of that disposable income, the middle-aged horseracing buffs with a supportive wife on their arm and a marked-up program in their hand, the gray-haired gents whose presence here dates back to the Canterbury Downs era in the 1980s.
But breaking up a typical 10-race slate with camels, ostriches and, new in 2013, zebras attracts more casual observers and fun-seeking families.
The sixth annual running of the wacky, exotic-animal sprints put on by Hedrick Promotions, Inc., drew a crowd of 20,291 — the largest since the Sampson family purchased and reopened Canterbury in 1994 and exponentially bigger than a normal Saturday crowd of 6,000-7,000.
It doesn’t top Sampson’s list of preferential methods for getting people through the gates.
But it does afford his venture a once-per-year environment that’s good for business and for fans, whether they’re there to gamble or just gawk.
“I can’t, myself, figure it out,” Sampson said. “But that’s what our fans like. We can run a big stake race and get an average crowd, and we put camels and ostriches out and we get 20,000 people.”
No issues from longtime track announcer Paul Allen, a horse racing purist to the core.
What’s good for mothers, fathers and children is good for Canterbury Park, he reasons.
“Most importantly, I like the reaction of the kids and the families and how they respond to the exotic animals,” Allen said. “The reality is, at Canterbury, we are more an entertainment facility than we are a hardcore racetrack.”
There were no odds or official bets placed on Saturday’s three races which each featured a different nondomestic species, though “side wagers are strongly encouraged,” Allen reminded the jam-packed grandstand on multiple occasions.
That left track regulars, families large and small and just-plain-interested patrons to stare and laugh as off-the-American-map creatures sprinted 1/16 of a mile with professional jockeys and handlers on their backs.
First, a camel named Rock’N’Spit cruised past his fellow dromedaries on the way to victory. After two more horse races, a group of ornery, recalcitrant ostriches did their best to dislodge every rider; they failed, as aptly-named Flightless Fred won by enough lengths (ostrich lengths?) for up-and-coming jockey Danny Velazquez to point and grin at the crowd while crossing the finish line. After another pair of horse races, a half-zebra, half-donkey by the name of Pin Stripe Paul scooted up the far right side of the track and grazed onlookers perched on the edge of the winner’s circle en route to a first-place finish.
Each different beast can near a 30-mph pace, roughly the same as an average racehorse.
But their sense of direction wasn’t quite as keen as their equine counterparts.
“It is very different,” said veteran jockey Justin Shepherd, who rode both an ostrich and a zebra. “It’s like trying to sit on the middle of a football. It’s very hard to ride.”
So versatile, apparently, is Shepherd’s skill set that he survived both races and guided a horse by the name of Nic A Jack to a wire-to-wire victory in the day’s longest race, which spanned about 1 3/8 miles on the complex’s turf oval.
Not that Shepherd knew his animal repertoire was so diverse; he never had ridden an ostrich or zebra before Saturday.
“It sounded entertaining,” Shepherd shrugged.
Former rodeo cowboy and schoolteacher Joe Hedrick breeds and trains a number of foreign animals on his farm in Nickerson, Kan., which also features a bed-and-breakfast and guided tour of the premises — which look and feel more like a zoo. A jolly, talkative fellow that grew up on a ranch, he keeps about 70 camels, 50 zebras and about 40 ostriches, in addition to llamas, water buffalos, emus, giraffes, kangaroos, and other fauna that likely require a college biology textbook to identify.
Hedrick does have his limits, though. “I don’t mess with cats, bears or primates.”
Some run. Others walk. Still others are reserved just for show, as Hedrick’s will show up at about 200 race tracks, fairs, nativities and even a circus throughout the year.
“It takes some time to train them,” said Hedrick, who usually waits at least two years before saddling a camel, ostrich or zebra. “We’ve had some camels that say, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. I don’t want to be a racing camel.’ . . . Not all of them are racing animals.”
Even after a decade in what he calls the “animal entertainment industry,” Hedrick has found ways to expand his offerings. Zebras aren’t easy beasts to domesticate — some have claimed it’s impossible — so Hedrick set out a year ago to prove he could do it.
The good folks of Minneapolis saw the results Saturday in one of about 20 races Hedrick will take his steeds to this summer.
“I’m the kind of guy that likes to prove everybody wrong, you know?” Hedrick smiled under his stainless, cream-colored cowboy hat. “I have been around animals — I graduated from college in 1967, so that kind of dates me a little bit — my entire life. . . . So we studied the animals a lot and we studied their natures and their habits.
“When you put a saddle on them and start riding them, it’s a whole different story.”
The white-and-black-striped gallopers turned out to be 8-year-old Twin Cities resident Jordan Goodro’s preferred spectacle. His grandmother, Janet Stutz, heads out to Canterbury a few times every summer.
But there’s no better afternoon for her grandson to accompany her.
“This has been a great day,” Stutz said. “It’s a great time to have those extra races to keep the kids interested. It’s been really fun.”
Goodro’s father and stepmother were also on hand, along with hundreds of other families taking a day trip to Shakopee.
And while many still showed up with hopes of making a few bucks at the betting stands, a lot of fans simply sat outside, cashing in on a day Goodro was able to characterize in a single word.
“Funny,” he smiled through a mouthful of ice cream.