Commentary: Woe(Whoa?) is Fairmount

By - Kathy Kranz

Fairmount Park, in downstate Illinois, announced that out of necessity it would cut its live-racing days by one-third for its 2008 season, from 90 days to 60 days. Cited was the reason that seems to hover like circling dollar-sign vultures: Casino gambling is hurting the track and, consequently, threatening the livelihoods of all its backstretch folks. If a measure isn’t passed by the state to either 1) share casino revenue with the state’s five tracks or 2) allow slots at Fairmount, how real becomes the threat of extinction for live racing after its 2008 season? Simulcasting could possibly continue. 

Last year I was privileged—yes, privileged—to witness Lawyer Ron winning the inaugural St. Louis Derby. But the 2006 running was the one and only, the first and last, the alpha and the omega St. Louis Derby.

It didn’t get a sophomore running in 2007 because Fairmount couldn’t offer the same purse as last year, $250,000, donated by a Chicago lawyer and also the largest purse in the track’s history. It’s disheartening that the St. Louis business community didn’t come together to ensure the city’s namesake race getting a 2007 rerun. Who knows who’s to blame for the lack of attention, but that race had to have been a shot in the arm for Fairmount Park. Approximately 8,000 people attended, and I would love to have learned how many cars sported Missouri tags in additon to mine.

The other big day for the track is always Derby day—the Derby day—and the only time advance tickets are required. If one waits to call for tickets until two hours after they go on sale, one is out of luck; voice of experience.

Fairmount has just as mature, and storied, a history as some of the grander tracks, and while its entries are at a less-than-graded-stakes level, some do have graded parents and all hark back to one of three founding Arabians, still train the same, still go to the gate in fast conditions and sloppy, still face the same threat of race-related injury, and do so without receiving much attention. And the backstretch folks, the caretakers and trainers of those Thoroughbreds, also tend to their duties day in, day out.

My 9-year-old grandson and 5-year-old granddaughter visited Fairmount earlier this summer and loved it. My grandson caught on quickly to the basic principle of odds relative to winnings (a practical application of multiplication and subtraction!), and my granddaughter was in heaven over the horses and elated when a jockey returned her wave with one of his own and a smile. The jockeys’ foot race, a fund-raiser for the Disabled Jockeys’ Fund, was quite a sight, the kids laughing with delight…as were some of us grown-ups. Picture jockeys loading in the starting gate, a few kicking impatiently at the panels, then tearing up the track for a distance of slightly more than the length of the tote board. Amazing how fast a couple of them were.

Fairmount Park concluded its 82nd season with the finish of the final race Sept. 29. I made sure I was there. Nice weather and a nice-sized crowd; nothing approaching the numbers for last year’s St. Louis Derby, but still an even spread along the entire length of the apron. I don’t know what the population was indoors because my favorite location is always somewhere outside.

An instant reminder of things to come, however, appeared in the program in the form of a letter from Jay C. Hoffman, state representative, 112th district. It pointed out the fact that Illinois is the only state in the country offering both racing and casinos where the latter doesn’t share with the former. The letter also conveyed assurance that efforts were ongoing toward finding a solution. 

So, after 2008, who knows? If Fairmount Park literally goes dark and happens to be demolished, that breakdown will definitely attract attention from the local news media. Also, no more convenient live racing for this lady, as then the nearest track will probably be The Woodlands in Kansas City, Kan., about four hours away instead of one.

Lastly, the circling dollar-sign vultures will settle…until they go in search of another track.

Kathy Kranz is a home-based medical transcriptionist and avid Thoroughbred enthusiast.