04/04/2009 12:00AM

Buoyed by state fee, Fairmount hangs on


Battered, but not broken - not yet at least - Fairmount Park in downstate Illinois begins a 75-day race meet on Tuesday. The season starts with the black cloud of financial peril hanging overhead, but by meet's end, Fairmount and local horsemen hope things look brighter.

By sometime this summer, Fairmount and the other racetracks in Illinois could get an infusion of millions of dollars worth of casino revenue currently being held in an escrow fund while legal proceedings unfold. The emphasis, however, remains on "could."

The money from a legislatively mandated impact fee imposed on four northern Illinois casinos has been tied up for three years now. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in favor of the legislation last summer, but the deep-pocketed casinos have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Back in Illinois, the legislature voted last fall to extend the impact fee for three more years, a decision that basically gave Fairmount a lease on life for 2009.

"I think if the impact fee wouldn't have passed, we might have had to go back to the [Illinois] Racing Board to vacate dates," said Lanny Brooks, president of the local chapter of the HBPA. Brooks has worked in close concert with Fairmount Park management in an effort to preserve racing while business at the St. Louis-area track has steadily slipped in recent years. "Passing that extension was pretty much the deal that [Fairmount] would in good faith commit to racing."

Fairmount will race three-day weeks, with night programs on Friday and Saturday, and Tuesday afternoon cards. Programs will generally consist of eight races, and as was the case last year, Fairmount will offer no purse less than $5,000, even though they regularly run claiming races for less than that price. Total purses on opening day are $51,000, which should be about typical for the meet. Leading rider Rafael Hernandez is back to defend his title, and leading trainer Ralph Martinez will as usual have a major presence.

The nominal opening-day feature, race 4, is a 5 1/2-furlong, second-level allowance race also open to $7,000 claimers, and layoffs are the operative function here. Four of the six horses in the race have not started in at least three months, while the two that have recently run have been competing in two-turn races. If Red River Aggie is ready to roll after a six-month break - and his sharp workouts suggest he is - he should be highly competitive from on or near the lead.