Howard Moellering, 72, sits at Fairmount Park at a table with some food, horse racing sheets spread out, watching the races on televisions mounted next to him as he prepares to make his wagers.
Moellering, a Chesterfield resident, is looking to place wagers at other tracks around the country, and when there’s live racing at Fairmount Park, he most likely won’t wager on those races.
At Fairmount “they have small purses because they don’t have enough income to get better horses,” Moellering said.
“If you go to Indiana Downs, or one of those places like that, they have a huge racetrack, big purses, but it’s a casino,” Moellering said.
In order to help Fairmount Park have more money for purses to attract more horses and keep people coming, legislators have filed new proposals aimed at keeping the Collinsville track from drastically reducing its live racing dates, or closing.
Fairmount plans to have 41 live racing dates in 2018 between May 1 and Sept. 22, the same amount as it did in 2017. It’s the lowest number of race days the track has ever had.
However, when the track submitted its racing date plan to the Illinois Racing Board, it said it would have to reduce it to 19 racing dates if it wasn’t allowed to have another revenue stream, such as casino-style gaming.
For years, Fairmount has asked to be allowed to have an additional revenue source such as video gaming or slot machines in order to have larger purses that could attract horse owners to bring their animals to race at the track.
One piece of legislation that has been sponsored by state Reps. Jay Hoffman, Katie Stuart and Dan Beiser, would allow the state’s three horse tracks to each have 150 video gaming positions.
Stuart called it a temporary bandage.
“It’s very simple. It’s not the full fix that we need. We can’t let Fairmount die while we wait and work out all the details on how we’re going to do gaming in the future,” Stuart said.
“Obviously they want a bigger fix, they want something that’s going to help them grow and get to expand the number of race days they used to have. At the bare minimum it’s to stay open, and the fear is without this very minor addition of the 150 positions, they will have trouble staying open.”
The Latino caucus in the state General Assembly is pushing the full “racino” treatment that would allow the race tracks to have table games in addition to electronic gaming. However, a proposed gaming expansion has passed out of the State Senate, would allow Chicago to have a casino, and allow race tracks to have electronic gaming. The proposal is still in committee in the House.
“That’s where there is disagreement on it,” Stuart said. “In the meantime, Fairmount will die, and it won’t do us any good if they expand gambling; we’ll lose the track.”
Hoffman said he expects racing legislation to be considered in the spring.
“I want to save Fairmount race track and the jobs that go along with, so I’m open to any suggestion that’s reasonable,” Hoffman said. “Whether its table games, whether its video poker, whether it’s slot machines. I’d be in favor of any of it, as long as it saves live racing.”
During the live racing season, the park could have between 350 to 400 employees working different trades and security, track officials said, in addition to the vendors, jockeys, vets, ushers and other ancillary jobs.
The track does have betting on races taking place around the country.
“That doesn’t provide the economic engine that live racing does,” Hoffman said. “Someone has to prepare the track, someone has to train the horses, and someone has to take care of the horses. Fairmount, although the amount bet per racing date is not the highest, it is the highest of the tracks in terms of attendance.”
The park has been reducing the amount of days it races for many years. However this was the first year the park asked to be allowed to vacate racing dates during its annual hearing with the Illinois Racing Board.
“We have vacated some racing dates in the past, (but) this is the first time in history that we’ve asked the racing board, during the actual dates hearings … for us to have the ability to vacate those days simply if a certain condition doesn’t occur. Meaning unless there is some sort of revenue stream to help the purse account,” said Brian Zander, the president of the track.
“It’s gotten to the point (where) we’ve tried and tried, and it’s just now it’s gotten to a tipping point,” Zander added.
He said it is hard to estimate how much 150 machines would bring it because there is nothing for the park to compare it to, but the park does have some models.
Zander said he estimates 150 video gaming machines could bring in $2 million a year in additional purse money.
“Which is actually pretty big,” Zander said. “Right now we produce about $4 million. You’re talking about an increase in 50 percent. That makes a big difference.”
Zander said there would still need to be discussion among horsemen over whether purses would be larger, or add more racing days.
“It’s an interesting argument, but it would be a nice one to be able to have,” Zander said.
Fairmount is planning to have a meeting no later than May 15 to see whether the legislature has taken any action and to make a decision whether to cut its racing season short.
“If we’re going to close down (for the season) on July 3, we have to give these people notice,” Zander said.
Even though setting up gaming would take a while, having a new revenue stream would give the track hope, Zander said.
“Even if it doesn’t produce money right away, then Fairmount Park becomes bankable,” Zander said.
He says he would be able to take out a loan to stay open.
“Banks don’t do very well when they’re lending money to businesses that aren’t doing very well.”
Zander sees other tracks, such as an Indiana track with 12 to 14 horses in a race. Fairmount could only attract up to eight or nine horses at times.
Zander said he still attracts great crowds at the park, but “unless you’re able to put on a show, then you’re not going to have anybody here.”
Doug Nachman, of Chesterfield, and Bruce Goldford, of Creve Coeur, co-own a horse, Capital Letters, which they don’t race at Fairmount.
“The purses aren’t high enough,” Nachman said. “You have no chance of making any money.”
They would rather travel to tracks in Kentucky where the race purses are much higher. At Churchill Downs they run for a purse of $68,000 and at Fairmount its $7,000, Nachman said.
Goldford had the champion mare at Fairmount in 1988. The purses back then were $9,000; purses today are less than that, he said, nearly 30 years later.
“That’s without inflation. It’s gotten real bad in the state of Illinois,” Goldford said. “If the purses made sense, I would own several horses here.”