Prairie Meadows to reopen track facility, takes next step to restarting casino

Friday 22nd May 2020

Horse racing and gaming could soon return to Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino.

The Altoona facility's board on Friday voted to reopen the "backside" -- where the stables and dormitories are located -- of the horse track June 1. A necessary step before races can resume, the reopening will be done in accordance with COVID-19 guidelines from the national horsemen association.

The board also elected to give Prairie Meadows' executive staff, led by CEO and President Gary Palmer, the discretion to reopen the casino. Palmer said he doesn't yet know when the casino will reopen.

"We're finalizing plans to reopen," Palmer told the board on a conference call.

Currently, casinos in Iowa will stay closed through May 27, per an order from Gov. Kim Reynolds. The governor did, however, sign a May 14 proclamation that authorized the reopening of dog- and horse-racing tracks provided that no spectators are allowed to attend the events.

Previous: Prairie Meadows race track to remain closed despite governor's proclamation allowing reopening

Initially, Prairie Meadows' executive staff and board elected not to resume horse racing due to safety concerns. Casino officials said in a news release that it didn't want to risk the health of its employees who would have to come back to work.

The novel coronavirus is still spreading in Polk County, they said, and Prairie Meadows doesn't have access to reliable testing. Plus, reopening the backside of the track would entail 500-1,000 horsemen and their staffs from across the country congregating around the barns and dormitories, making it hard to social distance.

Prairie Meadows initially closed March 16 and laid off more than 1,100 employees earlier this month, only keeping on a skeleton crew of employees to maintain the building and grounds.

On Friday, Palmer repeated that he wants to open when it's safe for both casino staff and the public. When it reopens, the casino will measure the temperatures of employees and patrons when they enter the premises.

"We're ready to go," he said.

Across the country, several horse tracks have been able to keep racing even during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Arkansas, Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort closed its casino but was able to still hold races -- without fans.

Jon Moss, the executive director of the Iowa Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said reopening Prairie Meadows' backside will signal to horsemen across the country that races will soon resume at the track.

Opening the backside allows horses to arrive and then train on the track, readying them for future races.

According to a 2019 study from the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky, horse racing in Iowa generates $200 million annually, including $29 million from Prairie Meadows.

"We want them here so that they spend their money here so they invest in Iowa. That's the key to everything," Moss said.

Like Palmer, Moss said the reopening needs to be done quickly but safely. On Facebook, his association said the casino "has tentatively agreed to a possible racing start date of mid-June." Palmer didn't tell the board if there's a start date in mind.

The National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association updated its list of safety guidelines last month. It includes establishing "health check" stations, a color-coded wristband system for each day of the week, setting aside quarantine rooms, face-covering requirements, stringent cleaning standards and, of course, no fans, guests or media.

At the health stations, Prairie Meadows plans to check the temperatures and symptoms of the people entering the track.

The casino board voted 7-4 to open the backside. Some of the dissenting voters said they wanted COVID-19 testing at the facility.

Board member Michael Gartner said Prairie Meadows should follow the lead of Churchill Downs, which is testing "everybody who comes in," even if Prairie Meadows pays for it.

"I think it's a great insurance policy," he said.

Suku Radia, the vice chair of the board, contended that COVID-19 tests only test for "a point in time" and there's "no assurance that one hour later you [couldn't] test differently."

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