Prairie Meadows Considers New Racing Format

Public hearing scheduled for May 23.

Prairie Meadows is considering changing to a racing format that completely splits its Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing while eliminating harness racing.

That is the recommendation of the track's Horse Committee, which has proposed a 56-day Thoroughbred-only meet for 2010, followed by a 30-day Quarter Horse season.

This year, Prairie Meadows has a 50-day Thoroughbred meet followed by a 32-day mixed meet with five Thoroughbred and five Quarter Horse races per day that runs through Sept. 19. Then the season concludes with a 16-day harness meet that runs through Oct. 24.

While there would be no Standardbred racing at Prairie Meadows, the track would continue to fund harness racing at county fairs, which currently receive $1 million.

The Horse Committee has spent a year examining the racing program, and the changes loom as the biggest since Prairie Meadows went to its current format in 1997.

As part of the process, Prairie Meadows hired two consultants — Doug Reed, director of the University of Arizona's race track industry program, and Dr. Margaret Ray, an associate professor of economics at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. They recommended a 56-day Thoroughbred meet, with a 19-day Quarter Horse meet and then a two-day harness festival.

Perry Chapin, a member of the Horse Committee, said more days were given to Quarter Horse racing to help make it worthwhile for breeders to raise a horse in Iowa.

"Talking to the Quarter Horse industry, that would be the demise of the Quarter Horses," Chapin said of the proposed 19-day season. "That was too short to make the Quarter Horse successful."

While Prairie Meadows pays out more than $20 million in purses, as mandated by law, and has another $4 million to $9 million in overhead red ink, pari-mutuel betting revenue has dropped from $7.8 million in 1999 to $4.9 million in 2008.

As proposed, the racing season would end on Labor Day. The track has been trying to end its season earlier since attendance wanes once football starts and on-track wagering drops by about 30%.

Whether the proposal works will depend in large part if Prairie Meadows can recruit more horses for the Thoroughbred-only meet, which has had at least 200 vacant stalls in recent years, leading to small fields and low betting. Nearly half of the horses that have started this year are Iowa-breds.

One drawback Prairie Meadows has had is that it is not part of a circuit. If the Thoroughbred meet ends on July 4, there is no track opening up for stables to go next. Remington Park in Oklahoma doesn't open until mid-August and The Woodlands in Kansas is closed.

"If you cut a meet off too early, you have nowhere to go," trainer Kory Owens said. "You'd have to hope that Arlington (in Illinois) or Canterbury (in Minnesota) would have extra stalls and let you in. If not, you're stuck."

Higher purses per day would help recruiting. With the Thoroughbred season condensed by no longer having a mixed meet, the $16.2 million paid this year in purses — money paid to the owners of the first five finishers in a race — would average $290,000 per day, compared to $248,000 this year.

That would top Arlington Park's 2008 average of $271,000 per day and also better the $185,000 per day paid by Lone Star Park and $126,000 at Canterbury Park.

"It'll entice more people," I think," trainer Kenny Smith said. "The problem is there are a lot of tracks are running at the same time. Even Churchill Downs is having trouble filling races. It's not like this is the only track that's having trouble filling races. If you up your purses a little bit, it entices new trainers."

The committee will have a hearing May 23 to give the public a chance to weigh in on its plan.