By Dan Johnson
Prairie Meadows will do away with its weeklong Iowa Festival of Racing as it adjusts its season to a new schedule and scaled-back purses. Instead of packing its six biggest Thoroughbred races into one week, the track will spread them out over four weekends from June 21 to July 12.
Purses for most of the track's richest races are being cut by $25,000 to $50,000 to reflect an overall 25% decrease in available funds. The two biggest races will be the July 5 Iowa Derby, worth $250,000, and the July 12 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Breeders' Cup, which offers a $300,000 purse plus another $50,000 for horses nominated to the Breeders' Cup.
Last year, the Cornhusker was worth $400,000, including $75,000 paid by Breeders' Cup. The track eliminated the $50,000 Diamond Trail Stakes for fillies and mares and cut the Precisionist Handicap, a prep for the Cornhusker, in half to $50,000.
"These were tough decisions," said Derron Heldt, the track's director of racing. "We built them up, and now we have to have a reduction."
Overall, Prairie Meadows will offer 18 Thoroughbred stakes worth a combined $1.86 million from April 18 to July 12. It still has to set the schedule for the final two months of its season.
One of the biggest decisions was whether to keep the festival of racing. The track has traditionally held its six richest Thoroughbred races on closing week of the spring Thoroughbred season to draw horses from across the country. That helped attract trainers from Kentucky, Illinois, or California with horses that fit two or three of the races.
A tighter time frame forced a change. The spring meet runs April 18 to June 28, ending a week earlier than in the past. A 48-day combined Thoroughbred-Quarter Horse season follows from July 4 to Sept. 13.
If held June 28, the Cornhusker would have been just two weeks after Churchill Downs' $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap, which would have eliminated any chance of Prairie Meadows drawing horses from the Kentucky race. So, for the first time, the big Thoroughbred races will filter into the second meet, which has paled in comparison to the spring meet.
"This works best for Prairie Meadows," Heldt said. "This way, we have major races the last two weeks of the first meet, and the first two weeks of the mixed meet."
Here's a partial stakes schedule: the $125,000 Iowa Sprint will be run June 21, the $100,000 Saylorville Handicap June 28, the $125,000 Iowa Oaks will open the second meet July 4, the $250,000 Iowa Derby is set for July 5, the $150,000 Iowa Distaff Breeders' Cup July 11, and the $350,000 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Breeders' Cup July 12.
Along with the stakes cuts, most daily races will be worth $2,000 to $4,000 less than in 2002. A maiden special weight event will drop from $23,000 to $20,000. The purse for a $10,000 claimer will dip from $14,000 to $11,000.
Prairie Meadows also told the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission that, if necessary, it would pay $40,000 to cover the state's cost in regulating the races rather than cut nine days from its Thoroughbred-only meet.
Faced with a budget crunch, the state has made across the board cuts in its funding of different departments. The commission is proposing that the legislature add in the cost of racing regulation in the new tax code that is being studied for casinos.