Metro-East News

Fairmount Park opens Tuesday, but without new revenue, season could end early

The Fairmount Park horse racing season is set to start Tuesday with only 41 live racing dates scheduled this year.

However, the park might not even get that many days in.

Fairmount officials have said if the state doesn't adopt a revenue source, such as video gaming terminals, for the state's horse racetracks, it might have to end its season even earlier than planned — possibly July. The state Senate approved a large gaming expansion last year, which would benefit Fairmount by allowing the park to have electronic gaming.

However, the House has yet to act on the measure this year.

In a news release promoting the upcoming season, Fairmount Park officials said they are "engaged in an ongoing statewide effort to bring slot machines to Illinois tracks, creating significant new jobs, revenue and racing dates."

The racetrack plans to have 41 live racing dates in 2018 between May 1 and Sept. 22, the same number of races as 2017. It's the lowest number of race days the track 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, with an earliest ending day of July 3, if it wasn't allowed to have another revenue stream, such as casino-style gaming, in order to increase money for race purses.

Track officials plan to have a meeting June 1 to discuss whether the season will be cut short as it waits to see if the legislature approved a new revenue source.

"In areas like gaming and horse racing, historically ... nothing really happens until end of session, and normally nothing gets started until [the] month of May," Fairmount Park President Brian Zander said. "I’m hopeful. We've got some indications the House is going to take up the gaming bill. Not to say they’re going to pass it, or whatever. At least they’re going to listen to people who have amendments and things like that on the bill that was passed in the Senate last year ... that's a positive sign if that really does go ahead and happens."

If another revenue source is approved, it would be awhile before the racetrack could reap the benefits. However, in the meantime, Zander said he believes he will be able to get a bank to loan the park money until the new revenue from potential slot machines comes in.

"That certainly changes the entire dynamic and how the investment community would view us," Zander said.

In addition, there may be some money for racetracks coming from the state.

In the budget that was adopted in July by the General Assembly, legislators included $3.4 million for the Department of Agriculture to distribute for horse race purses.

The Department of Agriculture works with racetracks to "promote and schedule races restricted to Illinois-bred horses," said Rebecca Clark, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture.

Fairmount was allocated $436,000. Even though the money has been appropriated, it doesn’t mean it’s readily available. The racetrack has to wait for the comptroller to send the payment, just like many other vendors and recipients in the state.

"The question is when you actually get paid, even though the state says they owe it to you," Zander said.

Zander added he expects to work with officials from Arlington Park and Hawthorne Racecourse racetracks to coordinate messages when lobbying for new revenue sources.

State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, and State Rep. Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, have been pushing bills to try to get an additional revenue source for the racetrack.

In the large gaming expansion bill passed by the state Senate last year, a casino in Chicago would be allowed, along with gaming terminals at racetracks. The House has yet to act on it.

"We've been discussing a large gaming bill. Fairmount would be a part of it," Hoffman said. "Those discussions are ongoing."

Hoffman said the Senate bill "is beginning to be used as the basis to try to determine a way to not only help Fairmount, but to bring in additional revenue to the state."

If that doesn't pass, the two metro east legislators are pushing a bill that would be a temporary bandage that would allow the state's three horse racetracks to each have 150 video gaming terminals.

Hoffman added there is discussion of the state funding it's "recapture pool" for the racetracks by using indirect tax dollars from casino gaming in order to make sure horse racing remains viable.

"When the tenth casino license was given, we’ve seen the effect it had on the horse racing industry," Hoffman said. "So there was a pot of money that was put together to assist the horse racing purses, and make sure when gaming money went to other forms of gaming, there was still enough money for the purses. That has not been funded in several years. We’re possibly looking at funding that."

Zander said he's lucky to have a loyal fan base, but fans are wondering if the season will run through September.

"We're just going to plan to go forward as is, and we’ll have to adjust as necessary," Zander said.

Joseph Bustos: 618-239-2451, @JoeBReporter