Columbus, MN — About five or six years ago, Cathy Dessert was pretty new to the harness racing game, having just started her foray into the sulky sport, by purchasing fractional-ownership shares in a couple of horses at Running Aces. She, along with her husband Bill, quickly caught the bug and jumped head-first into full-fledged Standardbred ownership, while enlisting the services of one of the top local horsemen, Nick Roland, as their trainer and driver. Around that time, she had a chance encounter with a very cool authentic Dan Patch-era high-wheel sulky, on display at, of all places, the local Thoroughbred track Canterbury Park.
She recalls her immediate thought, “What on earth is this magnificent piece of harness racing history doing at a facility dedicated to flats racing?” as both Thoroughbred and quarter horses call the Shakopee, Minn. track home each May through September. Certainly she was not the first harness racing enthusiast to spy the historic bike there and think it strange. However, when Canterbury first opened in the 1980s they had a harness meet. Even after they closed and reopened again, they did offer a few days a year of Standardbred racing. But it has now been 16 years since a trotter or pacer has competed on the one-mile track.
For Cathy, the encounter remained in the back of her mind. Years passed and Cathy and Bill became more and more invested in harness racing, both financially and emotionally. They advanced from claimers to private sales and auctions, and into breeding in the fast growing Minnesota-sired program. They won their first championship race in 2018 and took year-end divisional honors with the same horse, 2-year-old trotting filly Twilight Tinker. Also in 2018, Cathy became a board member for Minnesota Harness Racing, Inc., which is the harness horsemen’s association in the state of Minnesota. It was through her involvement in the MHRI board that she would soon have an opportunity to find out more about the Dan Patch-era sulky on display at Canterbury.
While participating in routine racing industry events, she had the pleasure of meeting Randy Sampson, President and CEO of Canterbury Park. She admits that it took her a good while before getting up the courage to approach Sampson to ask about the sulky. Around the beginning of this year, she indeed did speak to him, and asked to whom did the sulky belong, and he replied that it was his. She expressed her surprise to see it on display at the Thoroughbred track. Sampson explained that harness racing was once a part of the track’s activities, and that the city of Savage, where the great Dan Patch lived for most of his life, was very close by.
Cathy expressed that since harness racing was now long gone from there and had a new Minnesota home at Running Aces, it would be wonderful if there were any way to move it there. She asked if she could buy it and move it to Running Aces. Sampson shared with her what he had paid for it, and that if he sold it he would want to get that amount back, but he would need time to decide if he wanted to sell it at all.
After a short time, Sampson provided the answer that Cathy had been hoping for, and so much more. He would not only sell the historic sulky, but he would also donate the proceeds to a local horse racing charity foundation that was recently created by Ben Blum and Taro Ito at Running Aces. That charity is The North Metro Racehorse and Community foundation, which has a goal of creating a facility that can serve as a rehabilitation location for racehorses, assist in transitioning horses from the racetrack to retirement, and offer programs that educate the local public about horse racing and all of its benefits. Another goal of the foundation will be to offer additional stall space and overflow space for the racetrack, as well as providing other local community programs with support and assistance.
Cathy and Bill Dessert bought the historic antique sulky, turned over ownership to MHRI, and then immediately spoke with Ito, President and CEO of Running Aces, to be sure that he would welcome the piece of history to be displayed at his track. Of course, Ito was overjoyed with the idea, and so happy that such an important symbol of harness racing’s past would now have a home at one of the country’s newest and most respected harness facilities.
Cathy now had the sulky, she had the place for it at its new harness racing home, but she needed a way to get it from Shakopee to Running Aces, which is about a 60-mile trip. She knew just who to call: Alyssa Joy Fetterly, who is always at the ready to help out fellow horsemen in any way possible. Aside from helping to supply local horsemen with everything from feed to tack and equipment, A.J., as she is known, can be found helping on the backside at Running Aces in the barns or in the paddock. Upon hearing the request for help with the Dan Patch sulky, she was eager to jump in, hook up a trailer and hit the road, and she fully enjoyed the experience. She summed up the day: “What did you do today? Cathy Dessert and I moved a piece of history.”
On Wednesday (May 22), the historic Dan Patch-era 1904 sulky made the pilgrimage from Canterbury to Running Aces. It would have been fitting if it had been led there on the highway by the starting gate car or something equally as symbolic. But the sense of history was not lost on any of the participants in this great story: the semi-newbie to harness racing who fell in love with the sport and then the sulky, Cathy Dessert, was choked up and teary-eyed throughout the pilgrimage and even while discussing the significance afterwards; track superintendent and starter John Betts, who was instrumental in helping to get it placed in its new home; the previous owner of the piece, Randy Sampson, who realized that the significance of the sulky itself was bigger than one person; and the Running Aces CEO Taro Ito, who not only welcomed it with open arms, but insisted it get displayed in the most prominent place possible: at the grand entrance of Running Aces, not only home to harness racing, but now harness racing history.