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.