Prairie Meadows May Cut Purses Next Year

By Dan Johnson

A 2003 pact that would cut purses at Prairie Meadows by one-third is nearly done say racetrack and Thoroughbred officials.

While details are still being hammered out, both sides agree that the racing funds will have to be scaled back, with $13 million to $14 million projected for purses under one scenario. Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse purses this year will total $20 million in the final season of a five-year pact.

The actual amount may be based on the amount of betting revenue at Prairie Meadows, which says that higher taxes and expenses will slash its profits. If pari-mutuel and slot machine revenue increases, there would be more for purses. The track, however, is projecting a decline.

"I think we're close," said Gary Lucas, a member of the Racing Association of Central Iowa that operates Prairie Meadows. "There's a bit of disagreement on how we get there, but I think we agree on the gist of it."

Lucas said he thinks the contract can be wrapped up within two weeks.

Purse money has been hotly debated since Prairie Meadows added slot machines in 1995. Iowa law requires a portion of slot machine revenue go to purses, but does not say how much, only that the track must negotiate with its breed owners. Prairie Meadows projects a drop in income as expenses and taxes rise. The higher the subsidy for racing, the less money will be left for charity and Polk County, which is Prairie Meadows' landlord and wants gambling income to fund the $212 million Iowa Events Center.

Prairie Meadows offered $1.2 million in purses prior to having slot machines. Purses mushroomed to $10.8 million in 1997 and will peak at $20 million this year. All told, $100 million has gone to purses since 1995. The booming purses helped Iowa jump from 28th nationally to 12th in the number of mares bred in the state from 1995 to 1997. A 2001 track-commissioned study said that the industry supports 3,200 jobs in Iowa. However, the bigger purses only marginally affected betting revenue from the races.

The purses have drawn heavy criticism in Polk County, where officials and residents felt there was too much money for racing and not enough for the community. Those county residents will vote in November whether to allow the track to retain casino gaming for another eight years.

Leroy Gessmann, vice-president of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association that negotiates contracts for Thoroughbred interests, said his group accepts that the racing program will be scaled back.

"We're not greedy," Gessmann said. "The only thing we wanted was to fulfill our contract, because we took a lot less at beginning so the county could pay the debt. We realize that the gaming tax is going up, Osceola has a riverboat. All that has changed things since we signed the contract five years ago."

RACI chairman Jim Rasmussen said that the 2003 format will draw fewer high-profile horses and trainers.

"The positive is there will be more availability for Iowa-breds at Prairie Meadows," Rasmussen said.

The 2003 format as discussed:

* Prairie Meadows is likely to go back to the single meet format that combined Thoroughbred and quarter horse racing that it had from 1989 to 1996.

* There will be fewer racing days, 75 to 80, instead of the 98 days scheduled for this year. That will allow the purse per race to be near the 2001 level, and could also slash operating costs by $600,000.

* The season would start in late April and finish on Labor Day. The existing season runs to the end of September, when on-track betting drops by nearly a third.

* 20 percent of the purse money is expected to remain as bonus money for Iowa-breds, Rasmussen said.

Some of the remaining issues include how many races per day, and which of those will be Thoroughbred versus quarter horse events.

"I think we can maintain where we're at," Gessmann said. "I think average purse will be comparable. It might be less, but not that much less."

State Sen. Jeff Lamberti, R-Ankeny, who has proposed putting a cap on purses, said the $14 million figure is slightly less than the ceiling his bill would provide.

"I think it's a reasonable number," Lamberti said. "Within that number, they can operate while building enough room that hopefully allows the county and RACI to reach their agreement, and still leave enough left over for charity."

Polk County Supervisor Robert Brownell said he thought the purse figures were a bit high, but without seeing a finished contract, he wasn't sure how if it left the county with as much money as it will need.

"At first blush, if it's true, it's certainly an improvement overthe current level," Brownell said.