Prairie Meadows, Altoona, IA, May 11, 1996
Ahhh ... Mother's Day weekend racing in Chicago ... on Saturday, the $500,000 G.II Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park ... on Sunday, "Mother's die, opening die - same die!" at Arlington Park (according to Michael Wrona's best "I've fallen and I can't get up!" imitation accent voiceovers on AP's radio commercials). A special weekend, to be sure, a weekend to be savored ... which I spent at Prairie Meadows.
I didn't realize it was the same weekend when I got my mom's letter with the itinerary for their latest Retired Person's Bus Tour, a long meandering odyssey from central Montana through South Dakota and the many attractions of central Iowa, climaxing with the pilgrimmage to Pella, Iowa, for the big Spring Tulip Festival. Nope. All I knew was that my parents were going to be within fairly easy driving distance of me for a day or two. The fact that I would be missing the Illinois Derby and "Mother's die, opening die - same die!" never registered. Of course, the fact that the bustling metropolis of Pella is only a stone's throw from the even more bustling metropolis of Altoona - now that *did* register.
Well, sir, pretty much nothing exciting happened between Chicago and Little Amana, Iowa, except for several stops at toll booths totalling $2.70, and some mighty interesting construction at the bridge over the Mississippi. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that anything exciting *might* have happened. But I can reliably report that 5 cassette tapes is _way_ too few to take along on an expedition of this magnitude. Even if one is the New Duncan Imperials, official travellin' music of the McChump Racing Tour.
After an evening and breakfast with the folks in the vicinity of the Amana Colonies ("World's Largest Rocking Chair!"), the folks and their bus mates set out for Pella, and the big tulip festival therein, while I set out for Altoona, and the big racetrack therein.
Well, sir, pretty much nothing exciting happened between Little Amana and Altoona. Even the road construction was boring.
The skyline of Des Moines hove into sight about noon.
In total violation of the McChump creed, I'd called ahead, and knew that there was no actual live racing at PrM till 7:00 that eve., but I thought I'd maybe I'd stop in and scout the place out and score a DRF and maybe catch the Illinois Derby on simulcast.
Now, one would think that it wouldn't be hard to find a racetrack in a town of population 7191, but in the grand McChump tradition I turned it into an adventure, and saw most of the sights (well 3 of the 4) in Altoona before I espied what looked like the top of a theme park castle, little flags flying from the parapets and all, off to the west, and thought to myself, "yep".
I'd been a little leery ever since I called up Prairie Meadows and they answered the phone "Prairie Meadows racetrack and casino", but I wasn't quite prepared for what I found. Noon on a Saturday, no racin' for 7 hours, and the parking lot was half full. I made my way up to what looked like the front door and entered the place. My ears were instantly assaulted by the ringing, jangling din of slot machines. The good citizens of Des Moines were gambling up a storm by noon on a Saturday.
"Uh .. hi", I began, as polite and civil as can be for a guy who was now driving around Iowa in a car approximately knee deep in crumpled McDonald's food bags, and dressed to match. "Where could I find a program for tonight's racing card?" I am ever mindful of my responsibility to present the modern horseplayer in a positive light.
The girl at the information desk looked vaguely confused, and waved over her shoulder up the stairs. "I think they might have some at a stand upstairs", she informed me. And 'deed they did, at a small stand near a small simulcast area on the second level, in the midst of 1100 screaming slot machines. Armed with a DRF ($4.00 - Midwest Showcase Edition, featuring Churchill, Hollywood, LA Downs, Prairie, and Sportsmans) and an official track program ($1.00, the big kind, with nice beginner's pages), I was ready for some simulcast action.
Naturally, I did not have the winner in the IL Derby.
Before I left to catch an afternoon nap, and dinner with my folks, I counted us up in the little simulcast area on the second floor - 46, including me. In the casino area (ching! plunkplunkplunk ching!) maybe 1000. I headed out with my ears ringing.
Finally. PrM time. 7:00 pm. It didn't bother me that I showed up a little late. The first race was quarter horses. You think you're dealing with a amateur here? Heck, I been to Prescott and Rillito! No bet.
What a difference a few hours makes! The horse racing area (the free seats on the grandstand [lower] level) were jammed. The upper level (clubhouse) looked pretty full, too. The thing that really sucked was that the slot machines intruded right smack into the horse racing part, with slots right up to the rail behind the grandstand seats, so there was nowhere to stand or walk around and play the races, unless outside on the apron, where unfortunately on this night it was downright nippy. It's like PrM has positioned the casino so as to marginalize the horseplayers as far out to the front of the facility as possible, like if AP was to fill the entire 1st and 2nd floor with slots right out to the back of the seats on the apron. To be succinct - unless you're the type that likes to sit in one place all night inside, with slot machines rattling your brain and slot machine crowds jostling you, the PrM grandstand setup sucks. Then again - at PrM, racing 4 nights a week, 4 hours a night, mid-May through late August. Slots, 24 hrs/day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Duh. And to be fair, I never went up to the clubhouse, where it looked like maybe things were a little more tame and a little more horseplaying oriented.
But, on the positive side, I gotta say: Prairie Meadows goes down in the cheap horseplayer Hall of Fame. Parking - free. Admission - free. Program (as I said earlier): $1.00. Coffee and soda: free. Draft beer (not "giant" but big enough for government work): $1.00. Giant bratwursts and hotdogs: $1.25. Hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and pork loin sandwiches: $2.00. So thanks to those slots for those little niceties, fer sure. Also, the facility itself is very nice, if you can get by those annoying slots, and the people in attendance were friendly. And neat - no throwing losers all over the place at PrM. And no cursing jockeys, and the heavens in general, either. Like I said before, if racetracks were run like casinos none of that boorish behavior would be tolerated. And this is definitely a casino.
The race card itself consisted of two quarter horse races and seven TB events, all at 6f on this card. Purses for $3,000 claimers ran $3,000, while the feature event of the night, the Goldfinch stakes, a 6f event for 3yo fillies, paid $12,500. The horses were from all over the Midwest - lots of pp's from places like Aks, Hoo, Fon, RP, Wds, Hou, Ret, Brd, and of course Prm. Pretty decent representation from the Louisiana circuit, a few Chicago horses, and even a veteran BM campaigner. Twelve horse fields in five of the six TB races I watched, and eight in the 6th. Nice to have some betting interests.
Trouble was, I didn't have any idea about any of these horses, or the trainers, or the jocks aside from Jason Eads. I scrambled for a system to get me through the night. Would it be the 4 horse? Nah. Could I simply pick on the minor pools like I did at Fairmount? Nope. (In fact the Prm crowd hammered show. It wasn't unusual for the show pools to greatly exceed the place pools. I assume this was due to the casino crowd, who would wander out on the apron with their buckets o' quarters on occasion, bet a race or two, and then wander back in for more one armed bandit action.) Could I trust these Equibase speed figures from all these various tracks? Not darn likely. In the end, I resorted to that orphan of the modern figure handicapper - class. Can that RP horse make up 7 lengths on these Iowa breds? How does clm5000 at HAW compare with the allowance company here? And so on. And it worked - beautifully. Six races bet, four net winners, one breakeven, and one loser, for a tidy profit by the end of the night. Different approaches for different situations - that's what I say.
After the featured 8th, I'd had enough of the cold weather on the apron, and the irritating din of the slots and the jostling of the slots crowd whenever I went inside to warm up, so I decided to skip the last and take off. I dropped three quarters in a slot for good luck (gobble!), wended my way through the slots crowd, and finally found myself out in the relative peace of the parking lot.
Whew! Well, it's a nice enough place, but the racin' is really incidental, chump.
Pretty much nothing exciting happened between Des Moines and Arlington Park.
Mosey on back to the McChump Tour main page or the 1996 Tour