03/12/2011 1:41PM

Fairmount: Tough times persist as 88-day meet begins

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Of all the distress cries heard throughout Illinois racing – and there are plenty right now – the most plaintive come from Fairmount Park. Fairmount has cut fat and trimmed excess for years, and the track opens its doors for a 2011 racing season Tuesday still hoping for some kind of financial lifeline.

Tuesday’s opening-day card, the first of 88 scheduled this season, drew more than a respectable number of entrants, with 80 horses from 38 different stables entered in eight races. But the purses for which these horses compete will eventually confine racing at Fairmount to the hobbyist, rather than the professional. Those eight races offer total purses of just $38,400, an average of $4,800 per race. An owner, after dividing up the 60 percent winner’s share among his team, can fill up his truck with gasoline a few times. Paying the training bills out of those earnings will prove more challenging.

Still, racing is racing to those still trying to make a go of things in the downstate Illinois region.

“With all our troubles and woes, it’s amazing how excited horsemen get for opening day,” said trainer Lanny Brooks, who has two horses entered Tuesday. “We’ll try to keep the horsemen in this frame of mind.”

Brooks surely has spent more time working as head of the local horsemen’s group, a division of the HBPA, as he has overseeing morning sets of trainees the last several years. The local HBPA has worked in close concert with Fairmount itself to try and shepherd ontrack slot-machine legislation through the state legislature. Horse people had pretty well convinced themselves that 2011 was the year racinos would become Illinois reality, but racing’s latest slots push fell apart over the winter. The industry already has set in motion the process of trying again this legislative season. Absent slots, Fairmount’s future seems grim.

“I think the window is closing quickly. I’m not saying the tracks are going to close up and go away. But you’ve already seen cancellations of days,” Brooks said, referring to a recent Hawthorne card scrapped for lack of entries. “You’re seeing signs of things we’ve never seen before.”

Slots or no, Brooks said horsemen and the track enter the season committed to racing all 88 days currently scheduled. Should the financial atmosphere grow more toxic, Fairmount can petition the Illinois Racing Board to drop days later in the meet. As it stands now, live racing will be conducted Tuesday and Fridays during March, April, and September, with Saturdays added to the race week May through August. First post Tuesdays is 1 p.m. Central, while Friday and Saturday programs begin at 7:30 p.m., except for Kentucky Derby Day, May 7, which will have a 12:30 p.m. first post.