04/15/2008 11:00PM

Hard times reflected in new meet's brevity

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Fairmount Park outside St. Louis in Collinsville, Ill., opens for a 60-day meet Friday night, but no one is dancing in the streets over the upcoming season.

Fairmount Park has been struggling for years, and the landscape in 2008 looks more daunting than ever. The 60-day meet is all Fairmount thought racing in downstate Illinois could support, but that is a paltry number of dates for Fairmount, which raced 89 days in 2007, 90 days in 2006, and 110 days as recently as 2002.

The Thoroughbred business is in a down cycle in Illinois, and Fairmount is just trying to hang on at the moment, hoping that something will happen to spark the industry. Chief among those hopes would be passage of legislation in state government that would either bring slot-machine parlors to the state's tracks, or give racing a cut of profits from casinos. Nowhere in Illinois has the effect of casino gambling on racing been felt more strongly than Fairmount, which is located within close range of six casinos.

"The way I'm looking at it is this: We're going to continue looking at getting the gaming bill and the capital bill passed legislatively, because it's vital to our survival," said Lanny Brooks, who heads up the local chapter of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

Brooks and horsemen in general have worked closely with Fairmount management to advance racing's cause in recent years, trying to stem the tide.

"We're at the point where if we're going to have a chance, we have to stick together," said Fairmount's general manager, Brian Zander. "We long for the days when we had something to fight over, namely money."

Fairmount did get a break for this year in the parimutuel tax it pays the state, which was cut from 1.5 percent to .5 percent. Fairmount also has changed its purse structure, raising bottom-level purses to $5,000. The track will race three-day weeks, with eight races a day. Last year, the number of races per card fluctuated.

Average daily purses, excluding added money, were $67,225 in 2006, but fell to $54,735 last year. Friday night's opening-day card offers a total of $47,400 in purse money.

Some southern Illinois horsemen have pulled up stakes, but many will at least keep their local base while shipping to other racetracks when necessary.

"The average training rate is $25 to $30 daily down here," Brooks said. "With the cost of hay and grain, horsemen and trainers are getting killed, and they can't pass it on to the owners, because the purses are so low."

The privately funded St. Louis Derby, which was won by Lawyer Ron two years ago, disappeared last season, and is a dead issue at the moment. Fairmount has a few Illinois-bred stakes on its schedule - but not a lot of reason for outside parties to visit a venue that is struggling to survive.

Still, it is spring, and any opening day tends to pick up peoples' heads.

"It's crazy how horsemen are," Brooks said. "They still just can't wait for opening day. We're going to go on and make the best of it."