It doesn’t have the name recognition or history of Canterbury Park, but Running Aces Casino and Racetrack in Anoka County may give its south metro counterpart a run for its money after the facility opens a new hotel this month.
Running Aces is branding itself as an entertainment destination in the north metro city of Columbus. A $17 million Scandinavian-style hotel scheduled to open March 11 is one-up on Canterbury, which lacks attached lodging.
Running Aces has overcome a series of challenges since it opened in 2008. President and CEO Taro Ito said some people still don’t know that the city of Columbus — let alone Running Aces — even exists.
“We were like the redheaded stepchild. Canterbury was the golden boy. And I think we had a little inferiority complex,” said Ito, who was hired to run the company in 2014.
Despite its visibility from Interstate 35 and its location just 25 minutes north of the Twin Cities, Ito said, “Nobody knew this place and they had been open for years.”
The tide turned in 2016 when Running Aces relaunched Trout Air, a fishing pond stocked with fresh trout, which had closed in 1998.
Columbus Mayor Jesse Preiner’s family helped create the popular attraction in the late 1960s next to where the horse track is now. Guests would catch fresh trout, and cooks at a restaurant on site would prepare it for a full Up North experience.
“It was a big deal in the old days. When Running Aces brought that back, it was a nice tie-in for Columbus with the past and present,” Preiner said.
Running Aces is now one of the largest employers and taxpayers in the county, he said.
Between fishing, gaming, racing, dining and now lodging, Ito said, Columbus is poised to entertain and accommodate events ranging from family getaways to business conventions and weddings. Unlike many casinos, Running Aces bans smoking and has floor-to-ceiling windows.
The hotel’s 115 rooms are equipped with 65-inch flat-screen televisions and decorated with local artwork, including prints by Minneapolis artist Adam Turman, who also created a large mural in the breakfast area and lobby. Ito said the piece symbolizes everything Running Aces has to offer: historic Trout Air, card tables and gambling, harness racing and an outdoors vibe with the Minneapolis skyline in the distance.
The first year Running Aces opened, in 2008, it lost $4 million. In 2010, it faced foreclosure. Following a license revocation in 2013, the Minnesota Racing Commission audited the racetrack and ordered it to pay $400,000 to resolve a purse shortfall. But things are looking up for Running Aces.
Last year, the track offered its highest purse in history — $5 million — and 2020 promises to bring more guests and events with the hotel’s completion. Revenue generated by the site funds the purse, which company officials expect to set a record.
Along with live harness racing, viewable throughout the casino, restaurant and hotel, there are horse racing simulcasts from around the country.
Aaron Bedessem, a spokesman for Running Aces, said the company wants to own what it sees as an untapped entertainment market in the north metro.
“Our biggest struggle as a northern suburb is people don’t travel north unless they’re going to their cabins. All the attractions are south,” Bedessem said, citing the Minnesota Zoo, Canterbury Park, the Mall of America, Valleyfair, Target Center and Xcel Energy Center as examples.
With a movement to legalize sports betting growing in Minnesota, Running Aces is positioning itself to capture business from folks who would otherwise travel to Iowa to place their bets, he said.
“We really don’t even know what our ceiling is. We’re still trying to find that,” Ito said. “There’s an untapped market there, so I think there’s a lot more room to grow.”