04/16/2003 12:00AM

Racing front and center for meet opener


Prairie Meadows begins its 52-day Thoroughbred meet Friday night with a clean slate, as much of the uncertainty that surrounded the future of this central Iowa racetrack and casino in 2002 has been resolved.

At this time last year, Prairie Meadows and horsemen were beginning the final year of a five-year purse contract and the sides were far apart on a new agreement. A county-wide referendum to determine if slot machine gambling at the track would continue was scheduled to be held in November 2002.

With a three-year agreement setting purses at $15 million per season signed last fall, and with the track scoring a victory in the referendum, everyone can again focus on horse racing rather than business.

Total purses for the Thoroughbred meeting and the 48-day mixed meet that follows here in July will be down approximately $5 million from 2002 when a record $20 million was distributed. Many stakes races at Prairie will run for reduced purses this year, and the stakes schedule has been restructured.

The six races that have traditionally made up the Iowa Festival of Racing, run over several consecutive days during the first week in July the past several years, have been broken up and will now be held on the final two weekends of the Thoroughbred meeting, which concludes June 28, and the first two weekends of the mixed meeting, which begins on July 4.

The track's premier race, the Grade 3 Cornhusker Handicap, will be run during the mixed meeting for the first time, on July 12. The 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds and up will be worth $300,000 this year, down from $400,000 in 2002.

Stanley Roberts goes for his third consecutive training title here, but it will not be easy. Back, too, with large stables are the other four in the top five of last year's standings: Ray Tracy, who won the title here in 2000, Prairie Meadows's all-time leading trainer Dick Clark, Don Von Hemel, and Lynn Chleborad. Others returning include high-percentage trainers Roger Engel, Kelly Von Hemel, and Larry Jones. Trainers Steve Moyer and Noel Hickey will stable here for the first time in 2003.

Terry Thompson, coming off the best week in his riding career, having won both the Arkansas Derby and Fantasy at Oaklawn last week, goes for his fourth straight Prairie Meadows riding title. Luis Quinonez, Glenn Corbett, Cindy Noll, and Alex Birzer, who completed the top five here last year, are all returning. New riders here this season include Glen Murphy, Joe Johnson, and John Jacinto.

Arpege heads a field of six 3-year-old fillies in Friday's opening-night feature, the $50,000 Goldfinch Stakes. Steve Asmussen trains Arpege, who has won two of her three career starts, all at Fair Grounds. Donnie Meche will be in to ride Arpege in the six-furlong race.

Other leading Goldfinch contenders include Jenny's Prospector and Southern Alert. Jenny's Prospector won the Hoosier Debutante in November but has finished sixth in both of her starts this year. Both were in one-mile races at Turfway Park. Quinonez will ride Jenny's Prospector for the first time.

Southern Alert crushed a maiden special field in her debut here last May by 16 lengths, but was winless in four subsequent starts before scoring a gate-to-wire three-length win in an allowance race at Oaklawn March 9. Regular rider R.D. Williams will be in the saddle on Friday.

Racing will be conducted five days a week during the meeting with Wednesdays and Thursdays dark.


RACING SCHEDULE: 52 days; April 18-June 28; racing Friday through Tuesday, dark Wednesdays and Thursdays; no racing Easter Sunday, April 20; special racing May 28

POST TIME: 6:45 p.m. Central Friday and Saturday nights, 5:15 p.m. Sundays, 4 p.m. Monday and Tuesday

MEET HIGHLIGHTS: $125,000 Iowa Sprint Handicap, June 21; $100,000 Saylorville, June 28

MEET HIGHLIGHT: Omaha Handicap, $100,000-guaranteed, 3-year-olds & upward, 1 Mile, to be run Sunday, July 22.

LOCATION: Exit 142, Interstate 80 in Altoona, Iowa

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

INTERNET: www.prairiemeadows.com