07/02/2001 12:00AM

Iowa track gets its week in sun

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Prairie Meadows hit the jackpot six years ago, when the track was allowed to install slot machines. As a result, the track was saved from a bleak financial future, and purses for local horsemen steadily rose, from a daily average of an anemic $20,000 in 1994 to nearly $180,000 this year.

This week, horsemen from around the country will try to reap the rewards. Prairie Meadows - located in Altoona, just northeast of Iowa's state capital of Des Moines - has a week-long stakes festival, with purses totaling more than $1 million, that has lured horses handled by prominent trainers like Hall of Famers Bobby Frankel and D. Wayne Lukas.

The highlight of the week is Saturday's $400,000 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Breeders' Cup Handicap, in which the race's defending champion, Sir Bear, is scheduled to face the red-hot Dixie Dot Com as well as Frankel-trained Euchre. The Cornhusker was the premier race of the meet for older horses at the late AKsarben in neighboring Nebraska.

Frankel finished second in the race last year with Skimming. He almost didn't return this year.

"I wasn't going to go, because I thought the weights were really screwed up," Frankel said Monday. "Euchre was supposed to give Guided Tour two pounds. Guided Tour just beat Captain Steve. Euchre won the great, great All-American," Frankel added, sarcastically, referring to a stakes race at Bay Meadows on May 28. "But they said Guided Tour is not going to run, and it's only going to be a five-horse field. [Euchre] is leaving early tomorrow morning."

Meet ends with a bang

Saturday's card will be the finale to a 53-day spring meet, and a five-day run of six open stakes worth at least $125,000 apiece. The races are filled primarily with horses from the Midwest. Tuesday's $125,000 Saylorville Stakes, a six-furlong race for older fillies and mares, was headed by Oaklawn Park stalwarts The Happy Hopper and Miss Seffens. Bonapaw, a crack sprinter who winters at Fair Grounds, is scheduled to meet Chindi in Wednesday's $150,000 Iowa Sprint Championship at six furlongs.

Thursday's $150,000 Iowa Oaks was expected to include Unbridled Elaine and Valid Forbes, both of whom are based in Kentucky. There is a stakes doubleheader on Friday, with Touch Tone and the Lukas-trained Buckle Down Ben scheduled for the $250,000 Iowa Derby, and Asher in the week's softest stakes, the $125,000 Iowa Distaff.

It is usually hot and humid in Iowa at this time of year. But the forecast is promising for this week. It was unseasonably cool at Prairie Meadows on Monday, in the 50's, and the high temperatures late in the week are not expected to top the 70's.

A nice place to race

While Prairie Meadows has been in the crosshairs for trainers based in the Midwest, it largely has flown below the radar of trainers on either coast. That, according to Bob Baffert, is a mistake. Although he does not have a horse for any of the races this year, Baffert on Monday said "win, lose, or draw, I'd go back again."

Baffert's enthusiasm is boosted by both the reception he got there last year, and the difference it made in the career of Captain Steve, who used a victory in last year's Iowa Derby to bounce back from disappointing performances in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. The Iowa Derby began a streak for Captain Steve in which he finished in the money in nine consecutive races, and won such prestigious events as the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park, Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, and Dubai World Cup.

"The barn area was nice; they have a nice little grandstand," said Baffert. "I'd love to have gone back. We had a really good time. It was fun. The people were really nice."

Purses up, handle down

After an agreement between the track and horsemen acknowledging that proceeds from slot money should help fund race purses, the daily purse distribution has steadily climbed, even though handle on the races has fallen. More than $2.2 million in stakes purses also is offered during the current Thoroughbred meet, one of three meetings at Prairie Meadows. There also is a 45-day mixed Thoroughbred-Quarter Horse meeting beginning July 21, and from Oct. 15-Nov. 17 the track plays host to Standardbreds.

Through the first 45 days of this meet, the daily ontrack handle averaged $81,409. When offtrack betting is included, the daily average increases to $668,124. In 1997, the ontrack average was $102,714, and the total handle averaged $717,976. This week's handle is usually the strongest of the meet and should help raise this year's averages.

Approximately 8,500 people visit the facility daily - the 1,500 slot machines are open 24 hours a day - but the crowds go up by another 3,000 to 4,000 on days there is racing, according to Mary Lou Day, from the track's racing communications department. "And on a big week like this, it'll be up a lot more," Day said.

She added that Ames Economic Associates recently determined that the racing and breeding industry in Iowa impacts the state by about $250 million a year, including tourism money.

This week, horsemen from outside the state will be trying to take some of that money back with them.