04/18/2006 11:00PM

Purses get healthy boost

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Large purse increases should lead to a strong 45-day Thoroughbred meeting beginning Friday evening at Prairie Meadows. The Thoroughbred season runs through July 4 and will be followed by a mixed meet from July 13 through Sept. 9.

Under a new contract with the Iowa Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the Prairie Meadows Thoroughbred meet purses are to be increased by approximately 35 percent from 2005 levels, with $250,000 per day scheduled to be given out.

Purses are based upon a tiered percentage of the profits generated by the 68,000-square-foot casino at Prairie Meadows, which houses 1,500 slot machines and 45 table games, including blackjack, roulette, craps, and poker. The Prairie Meadows casino had net revenue of $181.26 million last year

Lower-level races have received the largest increases. Claimers available for $4,000 who ran for a $5,500 purse in 2005 will run for $11,500 this year. An entry-level allowance race that went for $21,000 in 2005 has a purse of $25,000 this year.

"We wanted to shake things up and get horsemen interested in the claiming game here," said Derron Heldt, the track's director of racing.

Fans attending the races will notice several improvements this season including, a new state-of-the-art paddock and walking ring. The track also has added a new and much larger jockeys' room. The improvements are part of a more than $60 million expansion project whose main facet is a large addition to the casino. The project is expected to be completed by early next year.

On the track, Dick Clark, the all-time leading trainer at Prairie Meadows, goes for his fourth straight title. Ray Tracy Jr., Suzie Evans, and Tim Gleason, who all finished in the top five in the standings last year, are all back with large barns, as are Kelly Von Hemel, Lynn Chleborad, and Dave McShane. New barns at Prairie this season include those of Kenny Smith, with 26 stalls, and Randy Morse, who will run a string both here and at Churchill Downs.

Veteran jockey Tim Doocy is back to attempt to win his third straight riding title. The remainder of last season's top five - Alex Birzer, Cindy Noll, Glenn Corbett, and Wade Rini - all return, as does Terry Thompson. Thompson won four straight riding titles here from 2000 to 2003 but has sustained major injuries at this meeting in each of the past two seasons. Apprentice Beverly Burress, who comes off a solid meeting at Oaklawn, joins the Prairie riding colony.

Closing weekend is the highlight of the racing season here, with three six-figure stakes carded on both Friday and Saturday evening. Friday, June 30, will feature the Grade 3 Iowa Oaks, which received a $75,000 purse hike to $200,000 this season. Also to be contested June 30 are the $250,000 Iowa Derby and the Saylorville at six furlongs for fillies and mares.

The meets premier event will be held the following night, Saturday, July 1. The Grade 2, $300,000 Cornhusker Breeders' Cup Handicap will be run at 1 1/8 miles. That evening's card will also include the Iowa Sprint Handicap and the Iowa Distaff Breeders' Cup.

Racing will be conducted on Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday each week throughout the meeting. First post is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Central on Tuesdays and at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday through Saturday.

The opening night feature, the $50,000 Goldfinch Stakes, attracted a field of 10 3-year-old fillies, topped by multiple stakes winner Jazzy Okie.

Jazzy Okie scored an easy 3 3/4-length victory over males here last August in the $88,000 Iowa Stallion Futurity.

Jazzy Okie enters the six-furlong Goldfinch off a rallying 3 1/2-length victory over allowance company at Saturday's distance on March 1 at Oaklawn Park. Trained by Kelly Von Hemel, Jazzy Okie has a mark of 4-1-1 from 8 starts, good for $126,210 in earnings, the highest in the Saturday's field. Tim Doocy has the mount.

Other contenders in the Goldfinch include Keystone Gulch, who is going for his fourth straight win, and Cintarosa, a stretch-running filly from the powerful Steve Asmussen barn.