Breeds at Odds Over Iowa Purse Allocations

by Dan Johnson

Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse interests in Iowa oppose a plan by the Standardbred industry to shift a larger percentage of purse money at Prairie Meadows to harness racing.

The proposal would take effect when a state law governing purse amounts takes effect in 2006. It wouldn't reduce Thoroughbred purses but it wouldn't allow them to rise until the other two breeds receive at least 16% of the purse total. Currently, Quarter Horses and Standardbreds get a little more than 10% of the purse money, while Thoroughbreds earn 79%.

"The support of the breeds by the track has not been equitable," said Royal Roland, president of the Iowa Harness Horsemen's Association.

For 2005, the purse level is what Prairie Meadows has negotiated with the breeds: $13.3 million for Thoroughbreds, $1.7 million for Quarter Horses, and $1.7 million for Standardbreds. With the addition of table games, total purses could rise from the current $16.7 million per year to more than $20 million.

How that money is split between the three breeds is up to Prairie Meadows and the horsemen's groups. Harness interests have submitted a plan to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission that would set the minimum at 16%.

"Who has the biggest handle?" asked Leroy Gessman, president of the Iowa Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, which negotiates the Thoroughbred contracts. "I think that's how Prairie Meadows bases its decision. It's still management's decision."

"We feel like it's better not to have it in law," said Butch Hammer, president of the Iowa Quarter Horse Racing Association. "We feel better about negotiating it ourselves."

Hammer said Quarter Horse interests want a bigger percentage, but said he expects that to be accomplished through negotiations.

The lion's share of the about $5.5 million Prairie Meadows will earn from pari-mutuel betting on live and simulcast racing is wagered on Thoroughbred races. However, that revenue is still far less than what Prairie Meadows spends on Thoroughbred purses and expenses, Roland said.

"Yes, you had more people attending the track, but when you spent maybe $18 million versus $2 million for our breed, Prairie Meadows lost a lot more money (on Thoroughbreds)," Roland said. "We're not saying divide it up even, we're talking about roughly $1 million and they're still getting $16 million or $17 million."

Prairie Meadows general manager Bob Farinella said he had no opinion on the proposal at this time.

When the last harness contract came up in 2002, some Prairie Meadows board members questioned the amount given to harness racing given the fact the sport draws few patrons and generates low handle. The harness races usually are attended by 150 people or less, though they have the disadvantage of being run late in the fall.