No ordinary race

Two of America's most beloved racetracks are celebrating their opening weekends, and yet the most interesting race being contested might just be taking place in Shakopee, Minn.

That's right, Minnesota.

Of course, the quality of racing at Del Mar and Saratoga will be second to none, but from a casual fan perspective, it might be worth paying attention to Canterbury Park on Saturday as well.

That is because Canterbury is hosting The Battle of the Surfaces. This pari-mutuel race has drawn a field of 20 horses competing against each other simultaneously at one and one-sixteenth miles on the turf and one mile on the dirt. The turf drew 12 competitors, while the dirt drew eight.

Since the Kentucky Derby had a scratch this year and "only" had 19 runners, this leaves Canterbury as the only track in the country holding a 20-horse race.

We are not Saratoga or Del Mar. We need to manufacture interest. We have good racing here, but a lot of places have good racing. We are trying to do something different so new people might watch and/or wager.

-- Eric Halstrom, Canterbury VP of racing operations

"We know what we are -- we are not an A-plus level racetrack," said Eric Halstrom, Canterbury's vice president of racing operations. "We are not Saratoga or Del Mar. We need to manufacture interest. We have good racing here, but a lot of places have good racing. We are trying to do something different so new people might watch and/or wager."

This is the eighth year Canterbury has held Extreme Race Day, but only the third time it has attempted the simultaneous race. The first year, in 2007, it was popular but the turf horses out-finished the dirt horses by about 15 lengths. The next year, there was a gate malfunction, and the race did not go off as planned.

Hosting the race again in 2014 isn't being done on a lark. A lot of time and research has gone into figuring out how to make it the best contest possible. Folks at Canterbury have been studying both the dirt and the turf tracks in an effort to ascertain the best way to get the horses to finish the race at the same time. They determined that the turf track is simply faster, and therefore, to level the playing field, the turf horses will be running further in an attempt to give the dirt horses a chance to hit the wire at the same time.

"What will be the neatest thing is if we can get horses from the turf and the dirt somewhere in the top four," said Halstrom. "I think this time we are as close as we can get to trying to even those surfaces up. We think the spectacle is fantastic when you see horses coming around the turn on two surfaces and the race caller is trying to figure out who to call. It is very entertaining, but that being said, it is also without question the most unique wagering opportunity of the year."

Each horse will be an individual betting interest with win, place, show, exacta, trifecta, and superfecta wagering offered, and the order of finish will be determined by best finish position regardless of which surface the horse is racing on. The Battle of the Surfaces will be the seventh race on a 10-race program.

While it is being offered as one race for betting purposes, officially it will be two separate races, with two separate charts, to keep it fair for the horsemen who are willing to participate.

"The most important thing for the horsemen is that they are running for separate purses, too," said Halstrom. "They don't have to worry about the unique situation or worry about a dirt horse beating their turf horse. We have a really strong relationship with our horsemen. There are places where it is adversarial, but not here. This group knows we want to try things and understands we are trying to do it for the betterment of everybody and for fun."

Extreme Race Day also features ostriches, zebras, and camels strutting their stuff on the track and has proven to be a popular event. When asked which exotic creature is the crowd favorite, Halstrom didn't hesitate to produce an answer.

"There is no question: it is the ostriches," he said. "I have seen exotic racing at different places, and it is always the same thing. The ostriches are always the most intriguing of the animals. People love to watch those ostriches."

Beyond being entertaining to watch, history shows that this odd day of racing is actually working for Canterbury. Last year, attendance was a record 20,291.

"We have to figure out a way to make ourselves different than the rest, and this is a chance to do so," said Halstrom. "We have a staff who isn't afraid of anything. We tried the simultaneous race in 2008, and it didn't work. But, we all got up the next day, we all still had our jobs, and we all said we are going to get that right next time. It is in our nature to try to do things that are fun for our fans, and this is one of them.

"I also know whoever wins the 20 horse race, they are going to walk back to the barn saying, 'I just beat 19 horses, I like that.' Not only have the horsemen been good sports but they have been good partners on this. They want it to work, too."

One thing is guaranteed: it is going to be a sight to see.