Prairie Meadows Racetrack & Casino for the first time will completely separate its Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing this year.
The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission Jan. 14 approved a plan with 103 total racing days that begins April 24 and has separate meets for Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and Standardbreds. The schedule calls for a 67-day Thoroughbred meet from April 24-Aug. 7; a 26-day Quarter Horse meet from Aug. 13-Sept. 25; and a 10-day harness season from Oct. 1-16.
It will be the first time since Prairie Meadows opened in 1989 that it has offered a Quarter Horse-only meet. In 2009, Prairie Meadows had a 50-day Thoroughbred-only meet, a 32-day combined Thoroughbred/Quarter Horse meet and a 16-day harness meet.
Prairie Meadows board members have said they want to separate the breeds in part to see how much of an audience the Quarter Horses have.
Prairie Meadows has spent the past 20 months looking to revamp its racing program in an effort to increase betting and cut costs. The 2010 format is unlikely to save much money — the length of the season is only one week less than 2009, and the $19 million in purse money that goes to horse owners is set by law. However, Tom Whitney, chairman of the Prairie Meadows Racing Committee, said it's a step in making long-term savings.
"We're not through the whole process," Whitney said. "Now, we will have an opportunity to measure the success or failure of the program, and that will lead to adjustments."
Prairie Meadows' initial plan called for having no harness meet while continuing to fund harness races at fairs across Iowa. And if the Quarter Horse meet does poorly during a three-year trial, Prairie Meadows could seek to cut back or eliminate that breed from its program.
The commission directed Prairie Meadows to offer 10 days of harness racing this year. Whitney said he still hopes Prairie Meadows can eventually end its harness meet, which draws little attendance or betting.
"I think it's the resolve for the majority of Prairie Meadows board members to do what is in our judgment the best interests of Standardbreds and the best interests of Prairie Meadows," Whitney said. "And that is to race at county fairs, but not at Prairie Meadows."
Whether the new format reduces problems or adds to them is a question to be answered. Nationally, many tracks operate in the spring, and the Prairie Meadows Thoroughbred meet had about 300 empty stalls and short fields in 2009. That led to a 22.4% drop in betting, compared to a 9.9% drop nationwide last year.
Part of the problem in recruiting stables was that the Thoroughbred-only meet ended in early to mid-July, when there were no other tracks opening up. By extending the meet to Aug. 7, stables at Prairie Meadows can go to meets beginning in Oklahoma or Indiana.
"A lot of trainers are showing interest that they can come here now and stay," said Leroy Gessmann, president of the Iowa Horseman's Benevolent and Protective Association that represents Thoroughbred interests.
However, Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse breeders say the shorter racing window will reduce their foal crop, which has declined 39% since 2000. More than half the Thoroughbreds at Prairie Meadows in 2009 were Iowa-breds, so if breeding continues to drop, the horse shortage could get worse.
"It's going to reduce the overall breeding numbers in the state dramatically, I think," said Scott Pope, a horse breeder from Adel, Iowa. "We've seen a steady decrease in the foal crop, and I think that's just going to continue. That's unfortunate, because I think the reason Prairie Meadows was built in the first place was to foster a breeding industry in Iowa."
Prairie Meadows will have $15.3 million for its Thoroughbred races, an average of $228,000 per day. On top of that is a $1.3-million underpayment that wasn't spent in 2009 because some of the track's better races didn't fill. That will carry over to 2010 and would make the total available $247,000 per day.
Quarter Horses will get $3.1 million, or $119,000 per day, and $550,000 will go to Prairie Meadows harness races ($55,000 per day).
Still unresolved is how much Prairie Meadows will contribute to the harness fair races, which received $1 million in 2009. Prairie Meadows has offered $750,000 for 2010, or $1 million if Standardbred owners agree to race on a compacted dirt track during the 10-day Prairie Meadows meet. The norm in harness racing is to scrape the surface to its limestone base, a process that Whitney said costs $350,000.
Harness interests claim horses labor on the compacted track and are prone to get soft-tissue injuries.