03/03/2007 1:00AM

State's poor relation carries on


Tuesday is the slowest racing day of the week across the United States, so few national fans will notice the start of the 2007 Fairmount Park racing season. But Fairmount and the group of horsemen who still call it home are happy just to be back in business for another year.

Each year, racing in the St. Louis area sees at least a slight erosion in an already tenuous racing landscape. Fairmount got some help from legislation granting tax relief last year, but Brian Zander, Fairmount's general manager, said that kind of assistant would only keep the ship afloat.

"What it really did was to help us continue going until there's a resolution in terms of the entire industry in the state," Zander said. "As the smallest track, we're the one in the most trouble."

Fairmount, like the other tracks in Illinois, hopes either to be able to install slot machines, or to receive a percentage of revenue from existing casinos. Failing that, Zander said Fairmount would indefinitely operate on the three-day racing week with which it starts its meet.

"We're fairly certain we can have relatively full fields with the three days," he said. "With favorable legislation, we'd certainly like to do more."

Fairmount got some national publicity last year when it hosted the $250,000 St. Louis Derby with purse money furnished by outside sponsors, and Lawyer Ron, a horse with a name, won the race. But plans for a second edition are fluid, Zander said. Funding might not be an issue, but Fairmount worries that the return of the Pennsylvania Derby, scheduled for Sept. 3 and with a slots-driven $1 million purse, will suck life out of the St. Louis Derby if Fairmount leaves the race on the last weekend in August.

"In order for us to have a credible race, we may have to search for a suitable date," said Zander.

The Fairmount schedule also includes a half-dozen stakes for Illinois-breds, with purses of $45,000 added, five of them to be run Tuesday, July 31. Ten $12,000 overnight handicaps will serve as feature races on other days throughout the meet.

Zander acknowledged that Fairmount, because of its limited schedule and purses, ends up serving as a training base for many horses who wind up racing at other Midwest venues. But horses training and racing at Fairmount this year are doing so over a surface that was reconditioned for the first time in 10 years. After the 2006 meet ended, Fairmount spent four weeks taking up the track surface down to its limestone base, some of which had entered the surface itself.

"It's in real good shape, and it's a lot better than what it was," said operennial leading trainer Ralph Martinez. "It's got a lot more cushion to it."

Martinez will waste no time getting down to business, with eight horses entered in six different races on Tuesday's opening nine-race program.