04/21/2009 11:00PM

Thoroughbreds get action going

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Prairie Meadows Racetrack got its start 20 years ago, opening its doors as Iowa's first and only racetrack in 1989. Two years later, the track filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, forcing a dark year in 1992 before racing returned the following season. But 1995 saw the introduction of 1,100 slot machines that generated revenue racing never came close to approaching, turning Prairie into a cash cow for the state of Iowa and the county of Polk.

A tumultuous history for a track so young? Definitely. And as Prairie launches another season Friday night in Altoona, racing's place within the larger Prairie Meadows enterprise remains unsettled.

Friday's opener is for a 50-day Thoroughbred-only meet that runs through July 18, offering purses that are highly competitive with other racing venues in the same, middle-tier category. But then comes a mixed Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse meet that lasts through September, offering less money, and forcing the displacement of some Thoroughbreds who might otherwise stay longer. And finally, to finish the racing year, a harness meet begins in late September and runs through the end of October.

The three-breeds-at-one-track model is challenging and complicated - and may not last. A task force set up by Prairie's racing committee has been studying racing's structure at Prairie Meadows for close to a year now, and will release its findings in June. By the end of the summer, the track may have cemented a vision of the future.

Some have wondered if that future includes racing at all. Prairie Meadows is a nonprofit owned by the state, whose revenue goes back into state and county coffers, and to charity. But while the casino has generated sizeable profits, the racing program is subsidized by casino money. But the law that allowed gaming at the track requires a racing component.

"People understand there's going to be racing here," said Prairie's racing secretary, Dan Doocy.

Doocy said he has some questions about the meet's beginning this year. Last season, there were about 1,100 horses on the grounds to begin, but this year that number is about 900, with the makeup of the horsemen's population still in doubt. A contributing factor is a lack of backstretch workers.

"The help situation is not good at all," Doocy said. "We just have a shortage of help right now."

Prairie will race four days a week, offering mainly nine-race cards, with average daily purses coming in at a level similar to last year's $250,000, Doocy said. Prairie averaged about 2.5 Iowa-bred races per day last year, and Doocy hopes the stables with Iowa-breds who did not winter at other venues will have their horses ready to roll early in the meet.

The major human players, both trainers and jockeys, are all back for the 2009 season. That list includes leading trainers Dick Clark, Chris Richard, and Kelly Von Hemel, and leading riders Terry Thompson, Glenn Corbett, Tim Doocy, Perry Compton, and Israel Ocampo.

Headlining the stakes schedule, as usual, is the Iowa Festival of Racing on June 26-27, with the meet's only graded races, the Grade 3, $200,000 Iowa Oaks and the Grade 2, $300,000 Cornhusker Handicap the most prominent of the Festival's stakes.

No open stakes horses are to be found on Friday night's opener, which has an Iowa-bred sprint allowance, race 8, as the feature. Aptly named Des Moines, who flopped in two recent starts at Delta Downs, may be happy to be back at Prairie for trainer Ray Tracy.