03/30/2005 12:00AM

Hoops mania hits Fairmount hard

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Illini telecast kept fans at home; Sunday card attempts to recoup

After a robust opening night last Friday saw a 7 percent increase in attendance over last year, Fairmount Park's pockets - and grandstand - were virtually empty Saturday night, victimized by CBS's broadcast of the wildly popular University of Illinois men's basketball team's comeback victory over Arizona in the NCAA tournament.

"The Illinois game killed us," said Fairmount's vice president, Joe Ruppert, who reported that attendance was down 34 percent and handle down 22 percent from last year's second night. "It'll probably kill us again this week, but we'll make it up Sunday."

Sunday afternoon racing is the rarest of rarities at Fairmount. But with the Illini playing Saturday night, and St. Louis - a short 15 minutes away from this southwestern Illinois oval - hosting this year's Final Four, the decision to saddle up on Sunday was an obvious one.

"Basically, we scheduled that based upon personal experience," said the track's general manager, Brian Zander. "I went to a Final Four one time in New Orleans. You've got all these people in town, and with the final being on Monday night they don't go anywhere on Sunday. Hopefully, we'll be able to draw a lot of them across the river."

* Horseplayers who have been betting on the formidable owner-trainer-jockey team of Lou O'Brien, Ralph Martinez, and Ramsey Zimmerman have made a killing thus far at the meet. Zimmerman has won aboard 15 of 28 mounts, with O'Brien and Martinez saddling winners at a similarly torrid 12-for-21 clip. The trio won seven races - including the last five in a row - at the sparsely attended Saturday night slate, and Zimmerman stayed red hot by winning four times on Tuesday, two aboard O'Brien-Martinez horses.