04/24/2017 1:50PM

Prairie Meadows opens with focus on boosting field size

Coady Photography
It's the Swede, the best Iowa-bred filly sprinter at Prairie Meadows in 2016, hasn't raced since last summer.

Prairie Meadows begins this year’s 67-day Thoroughbred race meet Thursday in clear need of one very important element: horses.

The Iowa racino outside Des Moines drew an average of 7.36 starters per race during its 2014 Thoroughbred season and 7.26 starters per race in 2015. Last year, that number fell to a paltry 7.05, and in a crowded marketplace, it is simply tough to generate bettors’ interest with so few horses in action.

But Pat Pope, the track’s racing secretary, remains hopeful that 2017 will bring something at least marginally better. The first two cards of the meet Thursday and Friday filled better than they did a year ago, and in addition to the main outfits that filled races during 2016, there are some fresh faces in town this year.

“A week or so from now, you’ll start seeing quite a few new people from New Mexico and Turf Paradise,” Pope said.

Among those horsemen is Miguel Hernandez, the trainer of Arkansas Derby runner-up Conquest Mo Money, who currently is stabled at Prairie Meadows. Also on the grounds, Pope said, is Fantasy Stakes winner Chanel’s Legacy, whose trainer, Lynn Chleborad, has become a Prairie stalwart.

The jockey colony, too, will have a different flavor than in 2016, with several new riders at the meet.

Betting on races and at Prairie’s casino improved last year, Pope said, and the track has boosted maiden special weight and allowance purses by $1,000 over 2016 levels while holding the line on all other purses.

The stakes schedule remains the same, with the Iowa Festival of Racing scheduled for July 6-8. Prairie Meadows hosts six stakes worth $100,000 or more over the three days, including the Grade 3, $200,000 Iowa Oaks; the Grade 3, $250,000 Iowa Derby; and the Grade 3, $300,000 Cornhusker Handicap.

Race weeks span Thursdays through Sundays, with weekdays’ first post at 1 p.m. Central and weekends’ first post at 6 p.m., a half-hour later than during 2016.

The opening-day feature, race 5, is carded at six furlongs, which should come as no surprise. As recently as 2013, Prairie Meadows ran 206 route races compared to 400 sprints, but that ratio last year tilted toward short races, with 423 sprints compared to 173 routes.

The sprinters in the Thursday feature are of the Iowa-bred female variety. It’s the Swede was the best 3-year-old Iowa-bred filly sprinter last summer at Prairie Meadows but hasn’t raced since then. Mywomanfromtokyo, also unraced since August, won three in a row to end last season’s local campaign, but all in two-turn races.

Dreamin, though, is in at the right distance, comes off a solid score in an Oaklawn Park starter allowance April 7, and might be the right pick.