Slowing Fairmount Horse Track’s Race to the Finish with the St. Louis Derby

I was a horse track junkie when I was fourteen years old. I didn’t have much of a choice; my parents lived in a little white house right next to Fairmount Race track near Collinsville, Illinois. (About 30 minutes east over the river from St. Louis.) My stepfather, Mack, took care of horses for a fellow named Doc Kane. Doc owned quite a few horses and you could see his name listed on pretty much every racing ticket. There were several aspects to spending the summer as a fourteen year old hanging out at the track: as a city boy, I got to spend hours exploring the woods along a small creek that ran alongside the stables. I had my own horse to ride, a fifteen-year-old Palomino named Buck, and my first job brushing horses and cleaning out the stalls. All you needed for the stall work was some clean straw, a pitchfork, and a wheelbarrow. Carry the soiled straw out to the dump pile and load up the wheelbarrow with fresh and throw that down on the dirt floor of the stall. The only danger was that sometimes you did this with the horse still in there and if he didn’t like your company, he could kick, bite, or bump you against the wall. The other aspect of living near the track took place at the track itself. If you go over to Fairmount now, you’ll notice that there are a lot of younger people who really know nothing about betting on the nags, but instead are there to socialize and drink beer, and have a good time. You can also watch other horse races from around the country on the TV monitors and bet on them. Back then, there were a lot of shady bookie types walking around wearing fedoras and chewing on cigars. They always seemed to have a wad of papers and several pencils sticking out of the front pockets of their white shirts and talked in whispers about having the inside scoop from some jockey that they knew in the next race. The track had a curious smell of mustard, tobacco smoke, and spilled beer.

Despite marketing attempts to attract the younger crowd with food and drink discounts and special events, Fairmount has recently fallen on tough times. It faces competition from casinos, state lotteries, higher operating costs, and other entertainment venues. There was a time when if you wanted to gamble legally, then the racetrack was the only place to go, not so anymore. The park lost $1.8 million last season and according to the majority owner, William Stiritz, it is on ‘the brink of extinction.”

Things aren’t faring too well for the folks who race the thoroughbreds either. In the 1970’s feed was about $3 a bag, $2 for a bale of hay, and you could pick up a truck and a trailer to haul the horses for a couple of thousand dollars. You could win several thousands dollars if you placed first in the race.

Nowadays feed costs $10 a bag, hay is $5 a bag, and it costs about $100 to shoe a horse. The average purse at Fairmount is $4500, about the same as it was in the 70’s.

A local St. Louis lawyer and horse owner, Jeff Cooper, is hoping to turn things around at the track. He recently donated $250,000 to sponsor the St. Louis Derby. It is the largest prize in the track’s 81-year history. With the Derby, he hopes to attract more first-class horses, more gamblers, and national attention to the track.

Horseracing is not only a gambling activity, but it’s also a sport. One thing is for certain; you can’t match the excitement of the bell going off and the horses coming out of the gate by flipping the handle of a slot machine. You also can’t match the smell of the track either.

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