Category Archives: Commentary

A Midwest Thoroughbred double feature

I have a pair of stories in the latest news cycle of The Midwest Thoroughbred magazine.

The print edition features a preview story for the upcoming meet at Indiana Downs. The Shelbyville, Ind. track had a banner year in 2010, and faces the unique challenge of keeping that positive momentum going. To find out how they plan to do it, I spoke to racing secretary Raymond “Butch” Cook and trainer Randy Klopp, who is also president of the Indiana HBPA.

Click here to read my preview of the 2011 Indiana Downs meet.

On the publication’s website, I have a feature on Michigan’s breeding industry. The story discusses the impact the state’s flagging business has had on its breeding operations, and highlights five of its top stallions. To get some insight on Michigan’s breeding industry I spoke to Michigan Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association president Patti Dickinson, trainer/breeder James Jackson, McMaster Farm manager Dan Boik and breeder EJ Hubel.

Click here to read my story on Michigan’s breeding industry.

Also, if you’ll notice on page six, I have been added to the publication’s masthead as a contributing editor. I’m honored to be part of the team.

This is not the first time I have had work published in The Midwest Thoroughbred. Back in September, I interviewed jockey and trainer Richard Rettele for the magazine’s “Jockey Shorts” section.

The Midwest Thoroughbred is a fantastic publication for readers interested in horse racing in the region, and the effect its native sons and daughters have on the national scene. Though the magazine focuses its coverage on the business in Illinois and Indiana, it frequently covers topics pertaining to racing in surrounding states, including Michigan, Ohio, Iowa and Kentucky.

The publication is getting better with every issue, and is definitely worth the time to check out. And I’m not just saying that because I write for them. The feature writing is creative, entertaining and covers topics that the national publications may overlook.

I’d like to thank The Midwest Thoroughbred for having me on board, and I look forward to working together in the future.

If you like what you see, click here to subscribe to The Midwest Thoroughbred.

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“Making Claims” debuts in Arabian Finish Line

Another exciting chapter of my journalistic endeavors kicked off this month with the debut of my monthly column, “Making Claims”, in Arabian Finish Line magazine.

The column’s inaugural entry, which appears in the publication’s April issue, is split into two parts.

The first half introduces yours truly to the magazine’s readers, including anecdotes about my origins in the sport, a few of my qualifications and my experience in Arabian racing. Naturally, I throw in some anecdotes about Mount Pleasant Meadows, too. In the second part, I look back on the Darley Awards weekend, including my evening at Sam Houston Race Park, with the help of a numbered list.

This month’s issue also features several photos I took over the weekend, including ones at the races and a few on the cover.

And now, without further ado…

Click here to read the debut installment of “Making Claims”!

Like what you see? After this post, “Making Claims” will be exclusive to readers of Arabian Finish Line. To keep up with the world of Arabian racing, including my monthly commentary, click here to order a subscription to Arabian Finish Line.

Arabian Finish Line is a fine publication that provides insight on a sector of horse racing that often goes overlooked by the industry’s media outlets. The magazine features articles, commentary, stakes recaps and statistics on Arabian racing in North America and around the world. With detailed stats on every Arabian that leaves the gates in North America, the magazine is quite the useful handicapping tool, as well.

If the notion of reading my column every month is not reason enough to get yourself a subscription, hopefully something in the above paragraph will convince a few readers to give the magazine a try.

I would like to take this opportunity to once again thank the good people at Arabian Finish Line for allowing me the platform to express my views and spin some tales. I hope I can provide a consistent source of engaging and entertaining content for many issues to come.

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Five reasons why Michigan’s Thoroughbreds should look west

As of right now, the Thoroughbred racing business in the state of Michigan is an industry without a home track to call its own.

While the clock ticks down to the summer racing season, the state Attorney General’s office is taking its sweet time deliberating on whether Pinnacle Race Course is worthy of its conditional racing license. Meanwhile, any immediate alternative (Mount Pleasant Meadows, one of the state’s three harness tracks) will take time to build up into the kind of facility needed to host a meet of the Thoroughbreds’ caliber. Until a decision is made, it is difficult for the decision-makers in Michigan’s racing industry to pull the trigger on either option.

From this writer’s perspective, Pinnacle is at best a 50-50 proposition for opening its doors in 2011. The Detroit-area track closed down all of its operations at the end of last year’s meet under a mountain of debt from municipalities, tax collectors and simulcast providers. Even the track’s website has been offline for over a month, now. A recent story by Crain’s Detroit Business about a looming job-creation audit by Wayne County only heaps more on the pile.

Perhaps it is too soon to simply give up on Pinnacle as a long-term home for Thoroughbred racing, but with the track’s unstable past, present and future, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to consider an alternative.

On the Michigan-Bred Claimer Facebook page, I asked readers where they thought the 2011 Thoroughbred meet would be held, where they would like to see it held and where the long-term future of racing may rest. When presented with the options currently available, the conversation quickly shifted to building a new track in a centrally located area – Grand Rapids or Lansing. Looking at the current situation, it is not hard to agree.

Clearly, this idea is little more than a pipe dream. Pulling it off would mean convincing another wealthy investor that horse racing in Michigan is worth the risk, which at this point is admittedly a hard sell. This, along with a litany of other factors, would make the idea difficult-to-impossible. The following discussion is strictly hypothetical. However, if done correctly, a move west could help drastically improve the health of the state’s industry.

Another aspect discussed in the Facebook conversation was combining the breeds at said centrally located track. From an exposure standpoint, the harness tracks are doing just fine in Detroit. Keeping them there keeps the simulcast dollars flowing in their area. However, it would not be difficult to transition the Quarter Horses and Arabians to this imaginary track, as well.

Before I continue, I realize this plan flies in the face of my 3,000-word manifesto against the contraction of small tracks, effectively shuttering the two tracks I was trying to defend. Don’t worry, I have a plan.

Pinnacle and the proposed track cancel each other out, so there is no loss there. Mount Pleasant would be gutted with the loss of Quarter Horses and Arabians. However, the track represents the only pari-mutuel outpost in central and northern Michigan, so it is important to keep around. Plus, with the track suddenly much closer, there may be more interest to watch the races via simulcast in Mount Pleasant by those who can not make it to the live races every day, but want to play and keep tabs on the track.

To keep the simulcast going, the new track would split itself into a spring/summer and a fall meet, divided with a short mixed breed meet at Mount Pleasant to coincide with the Isabella County Fair. Mount Pleasant gets exposure at a time when the most patrons are on the property, the simulcast can stay open all year, and there is incentive to keep the track up to code to use as a training center. Damage is minimized and everybody wins.

Want to keep Pinnacle in the mix? Give Pinnacle and the new track each one of those meets, then either give Mount Pleasant back the mixed meet horses to run their usual schedule or keep the county fair plan. That way, Pinnacle can continue to stay in business, it gets some time off to ease the cost of hosting a live meet and perhaps it can finally work on finishing the “Phase Two” construction.

Both Grand Rapids and Lansing are viable and acceptable options for such a venture, but there are a few factors that make the state’s capital city particularly attractive in this scenario. To illustrate this, I have outlined five reasons why a move to Lansing might be in the best interest of flat racing in Michigan.

Keep in mind, this is not a call to shut down any track, but simply a scenario to consider in the wake of current events. It’s always better to have a plan than not.

The five reasons why Michigan should consider a racetrack in the Lansing area can be found behind the jump.

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Expanding the brand

The recent weeks have provided several opportunities to expand my presence to bigger stages on the printed page, online and over the airwaves. Here is what’s going on…

- In the coming issues, I will be debuting as a columnist for Arabian Finish Line magazine. My monthly column, “Making Claims”, will examine topics in the Arabian racing world and elsewhere through my usual off-kilter prism of perspective, and hopefully provide an entertaining and provocative experience for readers.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the good people at Arabian Finish Line for providing this opportunity. I look forward to providing a new voice to the publication.

To learn more about Arabian Finish Line, and to subscribe so you can read the column for yourself, click here.

- In related news, I have been invited to attend the Darley Awards in Houston, Tex. on March 5. The Darley Awards are the Arabian equivalent to Thoroughbred racing’s Eclipse Awards. The weekend’s festivities also include a pair of Arabian stakes races at nearby Sam Houston Race Park, so I will get to check off another track to visit, as well. Expect some observations on the entire event at the conclusion of the weekend.

- The Michigan-Bred Claimer now has its own Facebook page! The social network fan page will feature links to the blog and other items relevant to Michigan horse racing, as well as other thoughts and conversations too small to expand upon in the blog. To visit the page and become a fan, click here.

- Last weekend marked my second round matchup in the Post Parade Lead Pony Challenge against noted author and handicapper Steve Davidowitz. I regret to report that I did not emerge victorious. After having great success playing Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs in the first round, the state of Florida went cold for me over the weekend.

However, the matchup did afford me two opportunities to chat with the contest’s hosts, Molly Jo Rosen and Bruno DeJulio, on their Post Parade podcast. Outside of discussing my picks for the weekend, topics covered over the two shows included vocal impersonations (Hulk Hogan, Andy Beyer, thick-accented Italians), professional wrestling, the Aaron Rodgers championship belt and the rallying cry for fans of comedy podcast Sklarbro Country – “Henderson!!!”

My first appearance on the podcast, where I am the first guest, can be listened to here. Sunday’s podcast, where I show up around the 42:30 mark, can be heard here.

I would like to thank Bruno and Molly Jo for letting me join the fun for the inaugural competition and wish them the best of luck through its conclusion. If they include Mount Pleasant Meadows among the tracks for their next tournament, I just might consider a return appearance.

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The case for small tracks: A Top Ten

Small tracks are not the reason for horse racing's current situation. Shutting them down would only further damage the sport.

To help combat sagging business in the horse racing industry, a growing population of industry members have begun calling for a contraction of racetracks in North America.

In his keynote speech at the University of Arizona’s Racetrack Industry Program Symposium, Churchill Downs CEO Robert Evans presented a plan that would potentially halve the number of racetracks in North America. Evans said this plan would create “a business that is economically viable” that focuses on a “quality product” . That sentiment was echoed by superstar freelancer Claire Novak in a recent debate about whether fans or bettors drive the racing industry.

Allow me to respectfully disagree.

I make no bones about being a small track guy. My home course is a four furlong mixed breed oval in what one pessimistic message board poster called “no man’s land”. My state’s Thoroughbred industry has been in decline for decades, expedited by the addition of expanded gaming in other nearby states. If contraction were to happen tomorrow, there is little doubt Pinnacle Race Course and Mount Pleasant Meadows would be among the first to go.

But does it really have to come to that? Putting my bias aside, there are plenty of reasons why slashing the number of racing venues, especially those on the sport’s lowest levels, would only further damage the sport we love.

To help prove my point in an easy-to-digest manner, I have created a ten-point list, a “Top Ten” if you will, of reasons why contraction would eventually cripple horse racing in North America and why our small venues are worth standing up for against the will of the powers that be.

Please note, this is not a call for subsidization of failing tracks. If a track shows it is not viable and the ownership has no interest in keeping it afloat, then so be it. However, if the will to live among ownership and horsemen remains strong, then no one has the right to strong-arm them into shutting down.

From the top…

10. The Almighty Dollar
Governments typically don’t like to openly admit that they like horse racing. In fact, most are content to watch it rot on the vine as long as they don’t have to spend any money. However, it is no secret that they sure enjoy the tax revenue that racetracks bring in through wagering and other avenues. Threaten that cash flow with a “sweeping industry contraction initiative” and see how those governments, especially on the local level, respond to their track being on the chopping block. Nothing mobilizes an elected official like telling him he can’t make money.

But let’s keep it on the racetrack for now. Many small tracks run their meet for the sole purpose of keeping simulcast wagering in their plant. Not every state has off-track betting parlors or advanced deposit wagering as a source to bet on racing, and if their local bullring closes down, so does their chance to bet on the races. Mr. Evans has made himself the face of the contraction movement with his keynote speech. However, nothing will suffer more from people being unable to place bets than his all-sources Kentucky Derby handle. The Derby is the one day that casual fans brave the smoky simulcast rooms to bet on the horse they read about in the paper. These people probably aren’t going to sign up for TwinSpires or drive another hour and a half or more to go to the next nearest simulcast outlet. That money will vanish into the ether and likely never return.

The remainder of the countdown can be found behind the jump.

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Holy Bull Stakes preview for ThoroFan

Once again, I have been called into duty by the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance to pontificate my handicapping wisdom on the ThoroFan website for this Sunday’s Holy Bull Stakes (G3).

My analysis is often long-winded (this one is 2,514 words long), but I went three for four picking winners in ThoroFan’s Handicapper’s Corner last year, including a dead-on call of the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) stretch drive and the giving out of 20-1 shot Exhi in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (G2). Eventually, it seems I get to some good stuff.

So as not to give away any spoilers, I will not reveal here who I picked to win Gulfstream Park’s first graded Kentucky Derby prep of 2011, but I will say that if it all goes as planned, it should cash a nice ticket or two.

To read my picks and analysis for the Holy Bull Stakes, click here.

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Guest interview for Lead Pony Challenge

As some readers may know, I am entered in the Lead Pony Handicapping Challenge against some of the most notable figures in the horse racing media.

The contest requires competitors to select six horses from the cards of seven selected tracks (Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Gulfstream, Keeneland, Oaklawn, Santa Anita and Tampa Bay). Each horse is given a mythical $2 win-place wager and the player with the most pretend money at the end of the weekend advances.

My first opponent is TVG on-air personality Matt Carothers. The winner of our matchup will likely face handicapping heavyweight Steve Davidowitz, author of more books on racing and betting than I have likely read of every combined genre in the last year.

The tournament is hosted by Molly Jo Rosen and Bruno DeJulio, co-hosts of  Post Parade with the Filly and the Clocker. Prior to each day’s races, the duo interviews the weekend’s competitors and gets their picks.

My matchup kicks off the event this weekend, so I called in earlier today and chatted with the show’s hosts. The highlights of our discussion included a mean-spirited haiku about my opponent, a potential sponsorship deal with Michelin Tires and me bemoaning the fact that the hard-knocking tracks where I excel the most at the windows are noticeably absent from this competition.

To listen to the podcast, click here. My segment comes in around the 33:30 mark.

I will be on again Sunday around noon ET to give my picks for the day’s races. The show is broadcast live on Blog Talk Radio, so keep checking back here to listen to the latest episodes.

In an earlier broadcast, DeJulio assigned me the longest price on the media side of the bracket (20-1) when laying out his morning line odds for the competition. No stranger to being an underdog, I have used this as bulletin board material to reaffirm my status as the scary mid-major of the field – along the lines of college basketball’s Butler University and football’s TCU. Hopefully I can show the world just what a Michigan-bred longshot can do.

UPDATE: I have advanced out of the first round by a score of 276-86. Five of my six picks hit for some kind of payout over the weekend. My next opponent will be Steve Davidowitz, author of such notable books on racing and handicapping as Betting Thoroughbreds and The Best and Worst of Thoroughbred Racing.

I made another appearance on Sunday’s edition of The Post Parade with the Filly and the Clocker with more picks and some back and forth with my opponent, Matt Carothers. I also made the announcement that I will be playing for the Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund.

To listen to the podcast, click here. I am in the first segment.

 

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Making the most of 2010: A look back on the year

The days leading up to New Year’s Eve offer a time for reflection on the year gone by.

For most, doing so may conjure up a roller coaster of memories, recollections, emotions and perhaps scars. Some will find they have made the most of the year, while others might discover that they have done very little with the last 365 days.

After doing some searching of my own, I have no problem staking my claim in the former group.

I often carry massive stacks of photo albums and other mementos in my vehicle because I always assume people do not believe me when I tell them the stories of my adventures. To save time and space, I have compiled some of the highlights of my 2010 into a handy bulleted list of links to posts of those stories.

Even after putting it into an itemized list, it boggles my mind that I experienced all of this in a lifetime, much less in one year. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I am a lucky son of a gun.

Let’s have a look at some of the things that have gone down since this time last year.

In the year 2010 I…

- Said goodbye to the man who got me into this whole mess in the first place.
Watched the Michigan Gaming Control Board slash the state’s race dates.
Checked two tracks off my wish list.
Watched the Michigan Gaming Control Board slash the state’s race dates again.
Was told to get out of Michigan by Chris McCarron at Keeneland Race Course.
Followed a colt with Michigan ties through the Keeneland Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale.
Gave out 20-1 winner Exhi in my ThoroFan Handicapper’s Corner preview of the Coolmore Lexington Stakes.
Drove off the beaten path to chase the Fortune 6 wager at Beulah Park…And was promptly dumped out by the second leg.
Wrote some haikus for Claire Novak’s NTRA blog.
Lost a Kentucky Derby pin collecting contest against Dr. Sale Guru Emily.
Got pelted by a flying mint julep on Kentucky Oaks day.
Roamed the backstretch to gather quotes after the Kentucky Derby.
Went to Mount Pleasant Meadows a lot.
Hosted racetrack bucket-lister Tom Miscannon during his visit to Michigan.
Suited up in the box seats at Arlington Park.
Broke down a Pick 4 while waiting in line for a cage fight, then did a phone interview about my selections during an intermission for Claire Novak’s Youbet On-Track podcast.
Watched the next generation of Michigan-breds go through the sale ring.
Ate, bet and drove my way through Hoosier Park, Ellis Park, Riverside Downs, The Red Mile and River Downs, which earned the attention of Jennie Rees’ blog.
Severely underestimated the popularity of racing in Montana at Yellowstone Downs.
Played blackjack and the Quarter Horses at Prairie Meadows.
Live blogged the Indiana Derby on-site at Hoosier Park.
Partied with Bo Derek, Toby Keith. Encountered Kentucky’s governor. Visited champion mare Zenyatta in her stall.
Witnessed one of the greatest races in the history of the sport – The Breeders’ Cup Classic – Even if the outcome wasn’t what we had all hoped.
Got to pet Zenyatta, cover breaking news in the Churchill Downs press box.

I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis…Stay thirsty, my friends.

Okay, perhaps that last statement is not entirely accurate, but it seemed like the right thing to say at the time.

Later today, my travels will take me to Turfway Park. Once there, I will have been to every still-active track I have ever visited within the 2010 calendar year…If that makes any sense. Turfway was the last track I visited in 2009 as well, so it is fitting to bring everything full circle.

This year has been, without a doubt, the most memorable ride of my life. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who shared in my adventures over the last 12 months at the races, in the press box, in meetings, at parties, on the road, on this site and all points in between. You are the ones who make all these stories worth telling, be it as a reader or an active participant.

Now let’s try to carry some of this good mojo into 2011, shall we?

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Michigan mares bred totals down in 2010

The Jockey Club reports the number of Thoroughbred mares bred in Michigan, a key indicator of a state racing industry’s health, was cut almost in half from last year.

Preliminary figures recently released by the Jockey Club indicate 152 mares were covered by Michigan sires in 2010, a 49% decrease from the 2009 total of 297.

To view a sire-by-sire comparison of mares covered in Michigan over the last two seasons, click here.

Before discussing the figures in detail, it must be noted that the 2010 numbers are based on reports received on or prior to October 13, and several thousand more reports are expected to come in later, undoubtedly some of those from Michigan. Last year, several Michigan sires were unreported in the initial Jockey Club release, but appeared in the foaling report statistics some months later.

To put it in a better perspective, last year’s preliminary report tallied 240 mares bred by Michigan sires, which constitutes a 37% drop between this year and last. Assuming there is a similar proportion of stragglers to turn in reports, (and judging by some of the notable no-shows on the list there should be a few), the final total should be higher, but still signify a major drop.

From the figures provided, only nine of the 27 Michigan sires to cover a mare in 2010 had a book of five or more.

Arnold Farm’s Meadow Prayer, who died over the summer, led all Michigan sires with 25 mares covered. The Meadowlake horse currently leads the state in Michigan-bred stakes wins (four) and stakes winners (three).

Hubel Farm’s The Deputy (IRE), by Petardia (GB), was second with 18 mares, followed by Comedy Show (Distorted Humor, 16), Equality (Mt. Livermore, 15) and Diamond Strike (Allens Prospect, 14) to round out the top five.

Baptistry, standing at Sprintland Training Center, was the only horse to see an increase of more than two mares from 2009, going from two mares to five in 2010. Of the sires to report mares bred in both years, Equality and Syncline took the biggest dips, both breeding six fewer mares.

The reasons for the decline are not very different from last year, just given more time to fester; ever-increasing competition from surrounding racino states, an unstable climate in the State Capitol, a decrease in race dates and declining purses to keep the dates that were run. Pinnacle Race Course’s highly scrutinized situation with its creditors and local government adds another element of uncertainty to the situation.

Below are a couple charts showing how Michigan’s breeding totals stand up against other states, and against history. Click on the charts for an enlarged view.

Mares Bred in the Great Lakes Region, 1991-2010

X Axis = Year; Y Axis = Mares Bred

Consistent with previous years, the top three states on the list feature casino gaming, while those who are behind the curve are sputtering. A fun-size candy bar goes out to anyone who ever imagined Minnesota would breed more mares than both Ohio and Michigan. Ten years ago, that thought would have been inconceivable.

While looking through the figures, I decided to also examine whether expanded gaming had an effect on the number of sires standing a given state. Below are my findings…

Stallions Covering Mares in the Great Lakes Region 1991-2010

X Axis = Year; Y Axis = Stallions Covering Mares

An interesting wrinkle of racino states is that they do not appear to guarantee a significantly greater stallion population once expanded gaming is implemented. What it does change, however, is the quality of stallions standing in the state.

Consider Indiana’s state-bred program, which emphasizes success in open competition instead of state-restricted fields. Because Indiana-breds must succeed against open fields, namely Kentucky-breds, to earn the most lucrative incentives, many farms must trade up from state-level sires to regional-level ones. The quantity of sires may remain steady, but the quality spikes. With lingering concerns about whether racinos actually lead to an improvement of the breed, it appears Indiana has found a way to at least point the state in a good direction.

To view the detailed spreadsheets for the above charts, click here.

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Bringing down Prairie Meadows

Prairie Meadows is a quality venue for racing and other forms of gaming. Oscar Delgado awaits a photo in the winner's circle aboard BT Sum Beach.

Racinos fascinate me.

As a resident of a state whose jurisdiction outlaws the splicing of a racetrack and a casino, they are the forbidden fruit; the seed that makes the grass greener, but is only available on the black market.

With that in mind, there is always a special incentive to visit tracks that offer casino gaming in other states to see if the positive effects of the one-armed bandits are more than just numbers on paper.

This aspect added a special intrigue to my visit to Prairie Meadows in Altoona, Ia. on the way back from my trip out west.

Prior to my visit to the central Iowa track, the only previous racino experience I had came from the two tracks in Indiana, a state in the midst of a racing renaissance because of its additions. While similar in vibe and motif to Indiana Downs, Prairie Meadows offered a different experience. Unlike the Hoosier State tracks, Prairie Meadows’ casino is built right into the grandstand. Parts of the casino even offer views out to the track.

The casino itself will be discussed later on, but it is necessary to bring it up when describing the track’s layout. Open entrances to the casino divided the grandstand’s second story, meaning it required an ID to explore the track beyond the ground floor. To the left of the casino sat rows of bleachers and a concession stand. On the other side was a typical-looking racetrack-style restaurant with the tables on declining levels going down a staircase. There were also some reserved seats with individual TVs for those who prefer to watch on a screen what is happening right in front of them.

Seating was abundant on the apron, even when the good-sized crowd reached its apex. A newspaper-sponsored car giveaway also meant the apron was populated with shiny, new automobiles seeking new owners.

The paddock is situated near the first turn in a curved fashion. The viewing area is split in the middle leading to the walking ring. The sightlines were excellent both for examining horses for wagering purposes and photography.

I stand firm in my belief that paddock placement can make or break a racetrack experience, and unless crowd management is an issue, the best place for it to be is near the clubhouse turn. This allows patrons time to get from the paddock to the rail to view the post parade and normally means shelter is not far away in the event of inclement weather. Prairie Meadows apparently got that memo and is a better track for it.

Admission for the day’s races was free and programs were $1.50. When the program vendor told me the price, I had to ask him again to make sure I heard correctly. For programs made with quality, white paper (not that pulpy crap that is hard to write on with my Mount Pleasant Meadows golf pencils), I am normally not upset to pay between two and a half to three bucks. A dollar fifty is unreal. The power of slots, man…

Speaking of programs and the power of slots, Prairie Meadows does a fantastic job showing off the track’s contribution to the state’s coffers. The program’s first two pages display letters from the track’s chairman and the chair of the Polk County Board of Supervisors welcoming fans to the races and showcasing the $1 billion the track has generated for the state of Iowa. Every day of live racing will be someone’s first day at that track, as this was mine, and that is a fantastic way to make a first impression.

My visit came on the richest day of the track’s Quarter Horse-exclusive meet, the Prairie Meadows Quarter Horse Championship Night. As it was during my visit to Yellowstone Downs during its richest card, my timing is impeccable.

With that said, consider the following. The combined purses on Montana’s richest day of racing totaled $77,650. The evening’s feature on Iowa’s richest day of Quarter Horse racing, the Valley Junction Futurity (G3), offered a purse of $143,250.

The lowest purse on the night’s card was a maiden claiming race for $7,000, while the average non-stakes purse was in the neighborhood of $14,000. Not bad at all.

The jockey colony consisted largely of Texas/Oklahoma/Hialeah Park circuit riders, with one notable exception. Among the track’s leading riders was Mount Pleasant Meadows-based jockey Oscar Delgado, who rode three winners on the night.

Once the races started, they moved at a rapid pace. The barns are apparently behind the paddock, because the horses came up to saddle from that direction without setting foot on the track. This meant no time was wasted walking from the backstretch because there was no backstretch to speak of. More than once, I found myself looking through the program or otherwise daydreaming, only to look over and see the field for the next race already saddling up.

It is also interesting to note that they played the song “Rawhide” in between several races. That was pretty great, even though I found it odd that the powers that be thought enough to play the song in Iowa and not at Yellowstone Downs, a track in a legitimate cowboy state. It is times like these when I wonder if I am taking this “racetrack aesthetic” thing way too far.

Between races, I ventured over to a barbecue shack on the apron. The shack’s pulled pork sandwich has the potential to earn a spot in the Pantheon of Racetrack Concession Foods. It will take another visit to to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, but it has the one-man committee’s full attention.

It took until the third race for me to cash a ticket, courtesy of Delgado aboard BT Sum Beach. Betting windows were plentiful, which is always a plus. There were even a couple tellers stationed in a gazebo near the paddock, which was also a plus.

The casino money had, without a doubt, increased the quality of the product between the rails, but the burning question with any racino track is if it can draw people out from the casino and on to the apron, especially the coveted youth demographic. With so many people in suits asking for identification, in the middle of Iowa for that, I initially had my doubts.

My doubts, however, were soon disproved. For night racing at a casino track, a surprising number of attendees brought their children. While it is good to see Iowa race fans grow the sport, though, little kids can’t put money through the windows. The real test is whether a track can draw the pivotal 2o-somethings, and Prairie Meadows seemed to do a good enough job of that.

One particularly entertaining example of this was a trio of clearly inebriated girls dressed way too lightly for the chilly evening. Between affirmations of how much they loved each other and asking me to take their picture (with their own camera. Sorry, gang), they actually paid more attention to the happenings in the paddock than the average tipsy Keeneland coed’s observations about the jockeys’ size or the pretty horses. Of course, they followed that up by trying t0 speak Sesame Street-level Spanish with a random Hispanic horseman near the paddock about which horses he liked. What the industry has to gain from this demographic remains unclear.

As a fan of Michigan racing, the highlight of the evening came in the $45,000 Two Rivers Stakes (G3) when Delgado set the track record at 440 yards aboard Jess A Runner with a time of 21.199 seconds. I found myself curious after seeing Delgado had the mount on Jess A Runner instead of Fairmount Park Invitational winner Bold Badon, whom he regularly rides, but clearly, he made the right call.

The fields were decent all night and it reflected in the payoffs. I hit two moderate-sized exacta tickets to finish about $15 ahead for the evening’s races. The night was not without its share of pari-mutuel heartbreak, though. Missing out on a winning ticket by a head or a nose is to be expected in Quarter Horse racing, but having the two horses boxed in one’s exacta dead heat for second hurts.

With a little more money in the bankroll than I had walking in, it was time to deposit it firmly into the casino. I entered through the grandstand to a few rows of slots, but eventually wandered my way into a much more expansive gaming area.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Prairie Meadows offers full table gaming. Having finished Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House somewhere in flyover country on the road west (see, doesn’t the post’s title make sense now?), I was itching badly to play some blackjack.

The computerized table games at Indiana’s racinos served to hide my cowardice as I placed $1 bets on roulette, but when it came to card games, I wanted the show. I wanted to wave off the dealer while holding a 14, knowing he was going to bust. I wanted to push my chips to the center of the table and feel the place erupt when the dealer threw down the card for 21.

The problem is, things like that require vast sums of money, so I hovered around and found a quiet $5 minimum table inhabited by a couple college-age-looking Asians who left after a few hands. I put in $25 and was soon one-on-one with the dealer; just like playing at the kitchen table at my grandpa’s house.

Wanting to keep in the game as long as I could, I played the minimum bet each time and hit hot and cold streaks that kept me at about the same amount with which I came in. Then I hit a blackjack. Booyah.

This must have drawn the attention of the pit boss, because he soon came over and carded me. I’ve got to hand it to this place – they sure are careful about keeping underage people out of the casino. Between shoes, the dealer and I made the usual small talk, and I told him about Michigan’s racino situation, or lack thereof. As someone on the green side of the fence, he was understandably surprised at the ridiculousness of it all.

I kept playing for a few more hands after hitting blackjack, and after noticing that my stack of chips was about $10 taller than it was at the start, I decided to get up from the table while I still had the casino’s money. I did some more exploring around the casino just to get a feel for the place, but resisted the urge to play anything else and risk blemishing my winning record.

The chips at the Prairie Meadows casino feature the track’s logo above the phrase “Your favorite place to play!” From a gambling standpoint, the chip isn’t wrong. It is hard to describe the boost an actual table game can have over a video version, even if the only computerized part is the betting terminal. Warranted or not, I always feel better playing a table game knowing my fate is being determined by the draw of the cards or a roll of the dice, as opposed to a computer algorithm that will tell me whether I won or lost.

From an entertainment standpoint, however, the Indiana casinos have the edge. As casinos with bigger, more expansive gaming rooms, there is more space for entertainment like bars and live bands. I’m not going to lie. I gamble more when there is a good live band in the middle of the casino. Even if I am just playing the slots, it puts me in a delusional kind of rhythm. At the very least, it makes me stick around to hear what else they are going to play.

With that said, building the casino into the grandstand as Prairie Meadows did has a greater potential to create more crossover interest between the casino and the track because of the easy access to each other. Judging by the number of people I saw out on the apron who migrated to the casino later that night (including the drunk trio, now with boys in tow), I think it might be working.

Behind the jump are photos from the evening’s races at Prairie Meadows.

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