By James Burky

Troy Bethke is leaning on a counter of a security desk outside of the casino at Canterbury Park — a horse racing complex — in Shakopee, Minnesota. It’s hot outside, as his sweat-matted hair attests. His powder blue polo has a “Bethke’s Racing Stable” patch resting on his right shoulder. He speaks with the confidence of a man who loves what he does, and the speed of his hands and twangy voice pick up when he’s asked about horses.

Bethke, 56, looks, acts and talks like a seasoned horse trainer. As he should. He’s been in the business for the majority of his life.

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“We had horses at home when I was a kid, we had showings as a kid, then we did small tracks at some county fairs,” he said. “My parents got us horses when we were kids and we just had to learn as we went. No one had done it before.”

Bethke grew up in Minnesota and was a star wrestler in high school and dedicated less time with the legs of a thoroughbred and more with his own hands. He passed up a scholarship to stay with the hobby he picked up on a whim. Bethke took the competitive fire from wrestling and fanned the flames when he first arrived at Canterbury in 1985.

He developed a reputation around the park as a fierce competitor with a volatile temper. Jeff Maday’s first thought when asked about Bethke is simple.

“He’s not a guy you want to mess with,” said Maday, a longtime friend of Bethke’s and the media relations manager for Canterbury Park. “There’s a story about how he got in an argument with a guy at a bar. One thing led to another, and 20 people shuffled out as this full-on brawl went down.”

Bethke said that drive was always there. 

“I always felt like I had something to prove. I had to prove to everyone that I belonged there,” Bethke said. “I wanted to prove to everyone that I belonged there.”

At some point, Troy isn’t sure when it was, he had proven himself. Maybe it was the steady recognition for training winning horses, the countless three-way shakes he came out of with prized racers. The years of experience.

“You spend so much time trying to prove that you belong and building yourself. Then one day to take a break, look back, and think, ‘Shit, I did all of this,’” Bethke said. “I’m not sure when it was, maybe in my late 30s. But now I have a family, a steady farm, and I do what I love. It doesn’t matter as much when people challenge me.”

That reputation of the fiery competitor who could burn you if you got too close has simmered into a comforting warmth that every Canterbury regular gravitates toward. Just don’t test him, and you’ll make a friend and learn quite a bit about horses along the way.

“Troy taught me everything I needed to know,” Maday said. “I was a city boy working with horses one-on-one for the first time.”

Bethke preaches that you have to respect the horse. It’s not just a four-legged money maker with a hell of a mane. They’re 1,200-pound natural marvels with graceful speed and enough power to ruin any person who dares to challenge them — similar to Bethke himself.

Bethke reiterates that as long as you treat the horse right, they treat you right. You take care of them and have a passion for what you do, they help you make bank. It’s one of nature’s stranger symbiotic relationships.

“I’m not doing this for gambling, I’ve never bet on a horse, I’m in this to win races,” Bethke said. “So many people complain about going to work. Like, ‘I have to go to work, blech.’ I’m not like that. I love what I do and I’m so thankful for that.”