04/14/2004 12:00AM

Festival races consolidated again

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The return of the Iowa Festival of Racing and the possibility of much larger purses in the future accompany Friday's opening of the Prairie Meadows Thoroughbred meeting. The 49-day meet continues through the Fourth of July.

The festival returns after a one-year absence and will be held on the last three days of the meet, July 2-4. The event consists of two six-figure stakes races per night. Two of the races are Grade 3 events: the Iowa Oaks, which will be run as a graded event for the first time in 2004, and the meet's premier race, the $300,000 Cornhusker Breeders' Cup Handicap.

"We felt the return to the festival format was more exciting for the racing fans and more accommodating to horsemen wishing to bring in horses for several different stakes events," said the track's director of racing, Derron Heldt.

Last year the races making up the festival were spread out over the last three weekends of the Thoroughbred meeting and the first two weekends of the mixed meeting. This year's mixed meet will begin July 9 and run through Sept. 25.

Dick Clark, the all-time leading trainer at Prairie Meadows, will defend his 2003 training title. The rest of last year's top five stables - 2001-2002 champion Stanley Roberts, Kelly Von Hemel, Dave McShane and Tim Gleason - all return with full barns. New stables at Prairie in 2004 include that of Ramon Gonzalez, who finished third in the standings at Sunland Park, and Andrew Konkoly.

Terry Thompson will go after his fifth straight riding title. Luis Quinonez, Glenn Corbett, Cindy Noll, and Joe Johnson, who made up the rest of the top five at last year's meeting, will all be back. Midwest journeyman Tim Doocy, whose brother Dan is serving his first full season as racing secretary at Prairie Meadows, will be based here for the first time.

As part of a three-year contract that ends in 2005, purses for the Thoroughbred meeting and the mixed meet will total $15 million both this year and next. Purses for this year's Thoroughbred meet will average $157,000 daily. There is optimism that purses will increase in 2006.

A bill passed by the Iowa House and now being debated by the state's Senate would allow Prairie Meadows and the state's two greyhound tracks to add gambling at table games. All three tracks currently house slot machines.

The bill came to life after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled this winter that a law taxing racetracks at a different rate than the state's riverboats was unconstitutional and that the state owed the tracks approximately $150 million in overpaid taxes and interest.

The tracks will forgive the debt if the bill becomes law, and a percentage of the adjusted gross revenue at Prairie Meadows will go to purses. Leroy Gessman, president of the Iowa division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and annually one of the track's leading owners, said purses should reach the $20 million mark in 2006 based on the track's low-end estimates on table gaming revenue and would likely escalate in the following years.

Friday's opening-night feature is the $50,000 Goldfinch for 3-year-old fillies at six furlongs, which matches Saltwater Runner against the undefeated Prevalent.

Prevalent, trained by Bernie Flint, is 3 for 3, with her victories all coming at different tracks. Prevalent's first two victories came in Kentucky last summer, and she returned from a six-month layoff to score a half-length victory in the Meafara at Hawthorne on April 3. Glenn Corbett picks up the mount on Prevalent, a daughter of Carson City.

Saltwater Runner won the first three starts of her career before losing when she was tried around two turns for the first time in the Martha Washington at Oaklawn on Feb. 16.

Trainer Bob Holthus returns Saltwater Runner to a sprint off a two-month layoff on Friday. Tim Doocy has the call aboard Saltwater Runner, who carries high weight of 122 pounds under the allowance conditions of the Goldfinch.

At a glance: Prairie Meadows

RACING SCHEDULE: 49 days, April 16 to July 4. Racing Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday each week. Special racing dates Thursday, July 1 and Sundays, May 30 and July 4.

POST TIME: 6:15 p.m. Central Fridays and Saturdays; 3:15 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays; 1:15 p.m. on special Sunday cards; 6:15 p.m. Thursday, July 1.

HIGHLIGHTS: Iowa Festival of Racing July 2-4, featuring the Grade 3, $125,000 Iowa Oaks and $250,000 Iowa Derby on July 2; the Grade 3, $300,000 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Breeders' Cup Handicap on July 3; and the $125,000 Iowa Sprint Handicap July 4.

ADMISSIONS and PARKING: Free

LOCATION: Exit 142 I-80 in Altoona, Iowa, 10 miles northeast of Des Moines.

SIMULCASTING: Daily

PHONE: (515) 967-1000 or (800) 325-9015

INTERNET: www.prairiemeadows.com