by Mike Seely
There appears to be but two certainties of spring lately at Fairmount Park, the downstate runt of the Illinois Racing Board's five-track litter.
One, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich will take a hard-line stance against the racetrack's desire to install slot machines in its stark, cement-floored betting commons. And two, whichever jockey is plucked by Lou O'Brien's Shamrock Meadows Stables is going to enjoy a very cushy perch atop the leaderboard.
Despite solid support from legislators on both side of the aisles, as well as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Blagojevich has, thus far, been adamant in his opposition to a gaming bill that would permit each Illinois racetrack to purchase 500 slot machines and award three new casino licenses, one of which Daley covets for the city's waterfront.
"He's not wild about slots at tracks," Sen. Denny Jacobs, from East Moline and the primary Democratic sponsor of the legislation, said of Blagojevich's viewpoint. "He considers that to be expansion. But a lot of the fees he wants are not going to be approved; so to me, the gaming bill is an opportunity for him to get out of his budget problems and continue his education-spending expansion."
The slots legislation would be a boon to Fairmount's traditionally skimpy purse account. A recapture clause has forced the Illinois Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association to pay up to $1.8 million annually to the track as simulcast wagering continues to rise and live handle declines. In 1994, the year before full-scale simulcast betting was permitted on site, the total live handle for Illinois' five tracks was $1.2 billion. By 2003, that figure had plummeted to $308 million.
"Slot machines are our savior," said HBPA executive director Lanny Brooks, also a Thoroughbred owner and trainer. "If things continue as they are, they'll be lamenting the fact that we used to have horse racing."
But as long as Fairmount's creaky gates continue to release old warhorses into the six-furlong wilds, O'Brien and his formidable father-son training team of Raul and Ralph Martinez will almost certainly make more trips to the track's winner's circle than any of their rivals. Through May 11, Shamrock Meadows horses had notched a robust 55 victories in 164 starts, along with 31 seconds and 25 thirds.
The stable earnings were $270,326, a high figure at this stage of the Fairmount meet.
The beneficiary amongst jockeys has been Ramsey Zimmerman (68 wins, 43 seconds, and 23 thirds in 189 starts), who takes the reins for O'Brien. Only when O'Brien has an entry does another jockey earn the privilege of donning Shamrock's signature green and white silks.
So Fairmount plods along, with or without help in the Illinois state capitol, and despite Brooks' outlook, attendance is actually up 13% from last year, thanks to Friday night rock concerts in the Black Stallion Room, and the hardscrabble track's vaunted "Horse Hooky" promotion on Tuesdays, wherein businessmen and women knock off early to eat 75-cent hot dogs, drink $1.50 beers, and watch $3,200 maiden-claimers.