by Dan Johnson
Prairie Meadows has proposed a 96-day Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing season for 2004. The plan is to race only four days a week instead of five.
The season would start with a 49-day Thoroughbred meet from April 16-July 4. It would be followed by 47 days of combined Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing from July 9-Sept. 25.
The 96 days combined for the two meets would be four days less than this year, which offered a 52-day Thoroughbred season and a 48-day mixed meet. The plan is still preliminary in that it needs approval from Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse associations, the racetrack's board of directors, and ultimately the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.
The biggest changes from this year would be cutting the standard race week from five days to four and extending the racing year two weeks longer into September. The 2003 season, which ends Sept. 13, was condensed this year as Prairie Meadows tried to avoid racing after Labor Day, when attendance and betting drop.
While purses are locked in at $15 million through 2005, the format has been a source of debate. Horse owners claim they need a long season to warrant breeding and buying horses, but betting and attendance drops after Labor Day, and Prairie Meadows at times this year had more races than it could fill.
"My concern would be fewer days and fewer races," said Leroy Gessmann, president of the Iowa Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.
Prairie Meadows argues the four fewer days will be offset by more races per day.
"They'll actually have more opportunities," said Maggi Moss, a member of the Prairie Meadows board of directors and a horse owner. "I like the plan a lot."
Quarter Horse owners in particular have complained that their racing opportunities are limited with a 10-week, 48-day season. "If we can't have one single meet, I'm in favor of similar days (to this year) with four days a week," said Butch Hammer, president of the Iowa Quarter Horse Racing Association.
The push for a four-day week is the result of business and racing considerations. The track believes that the fifth day dilutes betting, attendance, and the horse population.
"Our staff felt strongly about going to four days a week," Prairie Meadows general manager Bob Farinella said.
As proposed, the track would cut out Sunday racing except during the Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day weekends. Like this year, Prairie Meadows is planning to race Monday and Tuesday afternoons, when its export handle is highest, and on Friday and Saturday evenings, when it draws its biggest on-track crowds.
The Iowa Festival of Racing, a grouping of Prairie Meadows' biggest races, would return after a one-year absence. It is tentatively set for July 1-4. An earlier end to the spring meet caused the track to spread its $100,000 races out over four weekends, but made it harder for Prairie Meadows to attract big-name horses.
The track also is considering bringing back the Riding Cup, last run in 2002. It was an all-star riding event that brought in jockeys from the East Coast and West Coast to ride in races and sign autographs.