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Prairie Meadows celebrates reopening

The 10 horses in the Belmont Stakes were rounding into the homestretch Saturday afternoon, blazoned on every TV at Prairie Meadows Casino, Racetrack and Hotel, and the collective murmur of a few hundred followers at Iowa’s busiest gaming facility turned heads across the building’s fourth floor.

In most any other year, the unified sound wouldn’t have even registered among a throng. This being the year it’s been, the noise qualified as a buzz for a facility closed almost exactly three months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tiz the Law closed strong to make favorite-hunters happy nationwide, and then a friendlier-than-expected forecast made anyone looking for an early summer diversion in central Iowa happy to enjoy a seven-race card on the first weekend of 2020 racing at the 31-year-old venue.

Those hundreds filled the indoor spots a few floors above the track, and spread-out benches and picnic tables were occupied by families and hardcore fans alike for Day 2 of 67 on a condensed schedule that was supposed to begin May 1 and contain 84 competition days for thoroughbreds and quarter horses.

In all, the day went the same way the first week of reopening has gone for the casino, which shuttered March 16 and didn’t reopen until June 15, two weeks after the state signed off on reopenings on June 1.

Ideal? Of course not. Better than expected? You bet.

“Everybody in this COVID-19 year has got to give something up. Nobody’s getting out of it. We’re all gonna get a kick somehow,” said casino CEO Gary Palmer, who’s been associated with the property since its inception, which included a bankruptcy in the early 1990s and a second reopening in 1995 as the nation’s first combined casino and racetrack. “So the question is really how do you make a positive out of a negative next year? Because we are going to live, and we are going to succeed. So let’s plan on future growth instead of future failure.”

In essence, then, Palmer sees this as the property’s third opening — social distancing, limited machines in play, table games still idle for now. In his first three days since the 24-hour property launched, no customers had to be turned away as a part of mandatory health and temperature checks. Occupancy, which would be in the 8,000 range on a typical day, wasn’t to that level, but it exceeded expectations.

It’s no world-beater, but it’s a start.

Same goes for the racing card, which totaled a purse of almost $153,000 over the seven events. Palmer said the total purse for the racing season is around $21 million, but an undetermined amount of that tally will be bankrolled into the 2021 season upon agreement between the casino and the state Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. Prairie Meadows’ adjusted gross revenues, which are destined to take a hit in 2020 because of the three-month shutdown, determine the purse total for the coming year.

Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission administrator Brian Ohorilko told Gaming Today that the agreement, and a bill passed late in the state’s 2020 legislative session giving the commission the power to modify minimum purses or competition days during mass closures, would provide a “belt-and-suspender approach” for now.

Squirreling some money away now could help minimize the damage later, as Palmer said Prairie Meadows’ “hemorrhaging” losses of nearly $1 million per day during the shutdown will have the non-profit casino’s contributions dwindling on all fronts at year’s end.

“There’s always a silver lining. And for us, that was that we had three months to look over our operation and ask ourselves whether we are doing the best we can in a most efficient way,” Palmer said.

For now, that means limiting staff, curbing hours at the in-person William Hill sportsbook and maximizing the games that bring in the most revenue. But Palmer is undeterred about the long-term future, saying that he feels like there have been “1,000 fights in the history of Prairie Meadows” and that the venue has come through on each occasion.

“It’s a challenge, but we have to face it. There’s not much choice,” he said. “You either die or you live, and I can tell you we plan on living for a long time. … We’ve given close to $2 billion in profit back to our community (over the years), and next year we hope to be bigger on that front than we’ve ever been.”

Odds and Ends

A ray of light is trickling into the sports wagering cave in Illinois. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive order June 4 instituted a temporary allowance for players to sign up online for betting instead of having to set foot in a licensed casino, which had been the requirement when the state’s law was passed in 2019.

The state was taking in-person sports bets for less than a week prior to the pandemic shutdown. The state approved seven master licenses for sports wagering June 11, and Rivers Casino Des Plaines partnered with Rush Street Interactive to launch the first online sportsbook in the state June 18. Brick-and-mortar casinos remain closed through at least this Friday.

The same cheery news can’t be spread to much of Michigan, whose Detroit-area sportsbooks were in the same Illinois boat, having opened just before shutdown measures were taken but remain physically closed. Even when Detroit’s sportsbooks are given the go-ahead to reopen, they must do so at 15 percent of operating capacity, with all patrons and employees wearing masks unless eating or drinking.

The state’s Gaming and Control Board had begun taking applications for online wagering platforms in May, but the state’s online rules must still be finalized, and board executive director Richard Kalm has said that early 2021 remains the likeliest target date for the state.

The state’s tribal casinos have reopened, however, within the past month. The first sportsbook attached to a Michigan tribal casino launched Monday with Dacey’s Sportsbook having its ribbon-cutting within FireKeepers Casino Hotel near Battle Creek in the central part of the state.

The wagering handles in two Midwest states that had been more established saw increasing trickles of revenue in May after bottoming out in April. The Indiana Gaming Commission reported $37.33 million in sports bets taken last month, following a low of $26.30 million in April. In Iowa, the state’s Racing and Gaming Commission documented a sharp May increase in handle to $6.98 million, up from just $1.57 million in April.