04/25/09 Midwest/Canada Regional: Husky Times

  • April 21, 2009
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No matter what the industry, trends in America are often said to start in California and move east. But for the horse industry, Iowa, smack in the middle of the nation’s breadbasket, represents a microcosm of what is going on in so many areas, as breeders and owners battle for survival in the face of strained relationships with the local racetrack and government entities.

It was 20 years ago when Iowa horsemen celebrated the opening of Prairie Meadows racetrack in the Des Moines suburb of Altoona. Seven-thousand fans turned out for the opening card, but in just two years the track declared bankruptcy in an effort to lower its debt. Eventually, the facility passed into the hands of Polk County, where it is located, and received good news in 1994 when the state government narrowly approved slot machines at Prairie Meadows, which were operational a year later.

As part of the law, the licensee was charged with paying off the debt, growing and nurturing the horse industry, and providing for community betterment. The debt, which many believed would take 10 years to pay off, was actually done in just 18 months. It is the nurturing and growing of the industry that is a point of contention today between horsemen of the Iowa Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association and the racetrack, which is the only horse racing facility in the state.

In the immediate aftermath of the installation of slots, Thoroughbred breeding numbers shot straight up. According to ITBOA president Sharon Vail, foal crops from 1997-2003 numbered between 550 and 650, and the number of racing dates was solidified at around 90 each year.

“Since 2004, we’ve been on one-year contracts where we don’t know until the last minute how many racing dates we’re going to get the following year,” said Vail. “As breeders, it’s very hard to function that way, not knowing if we’re going to have 90 days of racing or 80 or 45. Last year we were around 350-360 foals in the state, our lowest number since the early 1990s, and we don’t want to stay at those numbers. The situation is reaching a head, and we need to be stable and have a long-term contract.”

To that end, there is a public-comment period in April about the future of the sport, and the state’s Racing and Gaming Commission has ordered the 13-member board of Prairie Meadows to develop a long-range plan by the first week of June.

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