03/11/2006 12:00AM

Absent help from state, best hope is to hold steady


The dollar beers are back, and so are the live bands, but what Fairmount Park in southern Illinois would really like during its 2006 season is a boost from the Illinois legislature.

Fairmount opens a 90-day season on Tuesday fully engaged in tread-water mode. The racing season has been cut back by 12 days from 2005, and purses for many races are down 10 percent from last season's levels. Already surrounded by casinos, Fairmount faces further pressure in the near future from two more gaming operations on the Missouri side of the St. Louis metropolitan area.

"We'd like to hold the line this year," general manager Brian Zander said.

Fairmount has reached out for a younger demographic and pulled in more ontrack fans the last couple of years, using a series of promotions to lure people to the track. Zander said one could find about 3,000 on a Saturday night.

"Do they all bet like regular horseplayers? No, but you hope you interest people in coming back, and it's a younger dynamic," said Zander.

Thanks to the Illinois law known as recapture, whereby tracks each year take a percentage of money from purse accounts to make up for revenue lost when full-card simulcasts came to the state in the 1990's, Fairmount significantly overpaid its purses in 2005.

Zander said there are bills active in the Illinois state legislature that would lend financial relief, including a bill in the House of Representatives that would funnel 3 percent of gross receipts from eight of Illinois's riverboat casinos into the racing industry. But for the last several springs, tracks like Fairmount have crossed their fingers hoping for help from the state, and so far none has been forthcoming.

Fairmount's three-day-a-week schedule, which lasts until mid-May, should help boost field size, and the 1,000 or so horses stabled on the backstretch have benefited from an unusually balmy winter.

"The weather definitely helps," said racing secretary Bobby Pace. "The horse population here and conditions have been pretty steady over the years."

From that population came 89 entries on Tuesday's first card. The 10 races offer a total of $48,800 in purses, with the day's highest purse $7,200. That comes in an entry-level allowance race with a claiming option of just $5,000.