04/24/2002 12:00AM

Expect intense battling on track - and in boardroom


Record purses are on tap as Prairie Meadows begins its 53-day Thoroughbred meeting Friday night in what is a pivotal year for the track.

Prairie Meadows, in Altoona, Iowa, has prospered since the addition of slot machines in 1995 but was the subject of controversy over the winter. Local government and business leaders publicly criticized the Racing Association of Central Iowa, a non-profit organization that operates Prairie Meadows under a lease agreement with owner Polk County. Critics felt the track was distributing too much in horse racing purses compared with the amount it paid to the county in rent.

RACI last month inked a three-year purse agreement with horsemen's groups, setting purses for 2003 through 2005 at $15 million a year. That figure is down from the $20 million that will be distributed this year, the last under the current five-year contract.

RACI is in negotiations with Polk County on a new five-year lease agreement to operate the track. Prairie Meadows also faces a county-wide referendum in November that will determine whether or not slot machine wagering will be permitted to continue at the track.

The action figures to be as hot on the race track as it is in the boardroom, with total purses, including state supplements, estimated at nearly $240,000 per day during the meet.

Stanley Roberts, the meet's leading trainer last year, returns with a full barn as will the rest of last year's top five: all-time Prairie Meadows winningest trainer Dick Clark, Don Von Hemel, Tim Gleason, and Lynn Chleborad. Other top trainers returning include Ray Tracy Jr., who was the leading trainer here in both 1999 and 2000, and Cliff Delima, who finished second in the standings here in 2000, the only season he raced at Prairie Meadows. New faces among trainers for 2002 include Greg James, Randy Morse, and Glenn Hild.

Terry Thompson will be seeking after his third consecutive riding title here. He will be retuning from a two-month layoff after suffering a broken thumb at Oaklawn Park. Also will be present at the meet will be the rest of last year's top five riders: Glenn Corbett, who is expected to ride Lusty Latin in the Kentucky Derby for trainer Jeff Mullins, Luis Quinonez, Cindy Noll, and Sidney Lejeune Jr. Justin Vitek is one newcomer to Prairie who could make an immediate impact in the standings.

The meeting will once again be highlighted by the Iowa Festival of Racing, which this year runs from July 3 through closing night July 6. The Festival features eight stakes races worth a total of more than $1.3 million, including the premier race of the meet, the Grade 3, $400,000 Cornhusker Breeders' Cup Handicap.

The Festival has featured some of racing's top horses the past several years, including Grade 1 winners Captain Steve, Skimming, and Sir Bear. Last year, Unbridled Elaine won the Iowa Oaks and went on to win the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Belmont Park.

"The response for stalls was tremendous, and the quality of horses on the grounds has never been better," said Derron Heldt, the Prairie Meadows director of racing. "I think everyone here is looking forward to a strong meet."

Racing will be conducted five days per week throughout the meet with a first post of 4 p.m. Central on Monday and Tuesday afternoons and 6:45 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

The opening night feature is the $50,000 Goldfinch Stakes, a six-furlong event for 3-year-old fillies, which drew a field of nine headed by California invader Miss Guts.