03/31/2012 12:16PM

Fairmount: Purse account escapes the red, thanks to casino cash

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The release last August of more than $140 million in casino impact fees to the Illinois racing industry might have meant more to downstate Fairmount Park than any other track in the state. For a track like Arlington Park near Chicago, the extra money means purses can be more competitive regionally. For Fairmount, the funds mean a new lease on life.

Those millions of dollars, collected from four northern Illinois casinos but held in escrow for years because of legal challenges, gave Fairmount about $6.2 million in operational funds and about $5.4 million for purses. Fairmount has regularly overpaid purses during its racing season, and more than $3 million of that additional purse money was used to clear the purse account. And when Fairmount opens a 66-day meet on Tuesday, it will be the first time in a long time that the purse account won’t be operating at a deficit, according to Lanny Brooks, the local Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective director.

“We ended up with about $3.4 million more for purses,” Brooks said. “We were talking with some [HBPA] board members, and it’s been so many years since that happened that we can’t even remember when it last was.”

Brooks said the $3.4 million will be spread over three seasons, but even taking a conservative approach. Fairmount’s purses will be more attractive in 2012. Total purses on opening day 2011 were just $38,400, while Tuesday’s eight-race card will pay $52,800 even before purse bonuses are added. Those bonuses, which will be as high as $2,000 for some allowance races, will be added to a race’s base purse if more than eight starters come to the horse identifier in the paddock before a race. A maiden-special-weight race that was worth $5,000 last season could go for as much as $9,500 with the starters bonus this year.

“It’s a significant amount,” Brooks said.

The hope is that higher purses will bring more horses, and that bigger fields might attract more wagering dollars, which in turn could help fund purses. Total all-sources handle on last year’s opening-day card was just less than $400,000, a tiny number in today’s simulcast world.

Leading trainers from last year Ralph Martinez and Steve Manley are in action on Tuesday’s card, but Scott Becker has the most starters (six) on the program. Rafael Hernandez and Emanuel Cosme, one-two in the jockey standings in 2011, might battle for the title again.

The racing week begins in April and ends in September with two days, Tuesday and Friday. Three-day weeks, with Saturdays added, will be the norm from May to August.