Prairie Meadows Schedule Remains in Dispute

The track wants to run certain days each week, but horsemen have other ideas.

by Dan Johnson

The 67-day Thoroughbred meet at Prairie Meadows Racetrack & Casino will run from April 18-Aug. 9 in 2014, but its racing week is still in dispute.

The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission Nov. 21 approved running the meet in that four-month window. It also approved a 27-day Quarter Horse meet that will take place from Aug. 16- Oct. 18, with the final night being the AQHA national Challenge Championships.

At issue is which days of the week to race and whether a loss in simulcast betting is offset by more on-track revenue.

Prairie Meadows wants to continue with the Thursday-through-Sunday format it adopted in 2012. The Iowa Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association asked the commission to force Prairie Meadows to return to the Monday-Tuesday-Friday-Saturday racing week it largely had from 1997-2011.

The commission approved the 2014 season but told both sides to seek agreement on the racing days.

"I think you have to get together in a room and get this settled even if you have to knock one another on the head," commissioner Dolores Mertz said.

Monday and Tuesday afternoons drew sparse crowds but were Prairie Meadows' biggest simulcast days. In 201, those two days averaged $34,741 in on-track betting and $597,963 in simulcast wagering.

Prairie Meadows' $32 million hotel opened in 2012, and management switched to a Thursday-through-Sunday format in hopes of drawing horseplayers who would stay the weekend. Plus, general manager Gary Palmer said, Prairie Meadows only gets 1.5% to 3% per simulcast dollar bet, compared with 18% to 22% on track.

The switch, however, did little to boost on-track horse betting, and simulcast betting dropped. 

Sundays in 2013 averaged $39,711 on track and $251,715 in export pari-mutuel handle per day. Thursdays averaged $33,503 on track and $532,599 from other sources.

Prairie Meadows' purses are set by law, with 11% of its casino revenue providing $19.5 million in purses in 2013. Nevertheless, the debate was at times contentious. Horsemen have long been concerned that the drop in betting would cause racing to be viewed unfavorably.

Jon Moss, executive director for the Iowa HBPA, said the change in dates has cost Prairie Meadows $1 million in simulcast revenue. He said switching back to Mondays and Tuesdays would boost advance deposit wagering since more races would likely be shown on TVG on those days.

"We think we can through a small shift get back to where we were in 2011," Moss told the commission. "We get more (simulcast) exposure on Monday and Tuesday, because there's less competition. We get few simulcast outlets on Sunday."

Palmer said the drop in simulcast handle has been more than offset by increases in hotel, casino, and food and beverage sales. The track has not made public what that estimated gain is, but in January it said about 2% of its hotel occupancy came from race-goers.

"We think we bring in more people on weekends," Palmer said. "We didn't have anybody coming (on Mondays and Tuesdays). If I were a horseman, I'd be more worried about what we make on the casino than (wagering on horse races)."

Moss said afterward it's important for racing to contribute as much as possible.

"We want to be viewed in the best light possible," Moss said. "There is a fear of being marginalized if our quality product doesn't do well because of the week."

Meanwhile, Prairie Meadows has developed a 2014 budget that estimates 2.1% growth in revenue while construction for its building expansion continues. The business plan projects $211.9 million in total revenue, with $190 million of that coming from casino betting and $3.5 million from pari-mutuel wagering.

Prairie Meadows, which is not-for-profit, will pay $26 million to landlord Polk County in rent and profit-sharing. Another $5.5 million will go to charities, with $4 million to the city of Des Moines and $714,000 to schools.