Spectator-Free Racing Brings Mixed Results For Fairmount Park
COLLINSVILLE — The coronavirus lockdowns in Illinois came just as Fairmount Park Racetrack was set to start the 2020 horse racing season in March.
The racetrack was shuttered until June, when Illinois allowed live horse races to resume at tracks around the state with one caveat: no spectators.
Spectator-free racing is an idea Fairmount tried one day in March near the beginning of coronavirus restrictions but scrapped because it did not generate enough money to be viable.
Illinois officials returned to the same idea months later after other tracks in the country saw dramatic increases in revenue from online wagering during other state lockdowns.
Track officials in Collinsville were nervous about how Fairmount would handle racing without any fans on the property, said Melissa Helton, the track’s president and general manager.
“What was going through my head is, this is going to be a big expense because [there’s] no actual income at the property level,” she said.
Without spectators, the track is now forced to rely on proceeds from wagers placed online or at off-track betting parlors, Helton said.
“Right now that’s all we have, so it is our bread and butter,” she said. “It’s very hard not having people here.”
Helton estimates around 10,000 people visit the track each week in normal times, the majority coming from Missouri. She added Missouri residents cannot place wagers on TVG, a major betting platform that livestreams horse races, including those at Fairmount, across the country.
Visitors to the racetrack drive most of the park’s revenue, Helton said.
“We have food and beverage revenue, we have admissions,” she said. “A lot of people take advantage of the valet. So all of that, even when we open, will have to be re-evaluated because of COVID.”
No visitors also means the track has only been able to bring back a fraction of the nearly 350 people who work as tellers, security and laborers, Helton said.
“We can bring some people back to work, but not everyone,” she said. “We hear from them every day, they’re ready to come back to work.”
Gamblers lament restrictions
The changes to gambling on horse races because of the global pandemic are frustrating for those who are still betting on them. With the track closed, the only options for betting are online or at an off-track parlor in Alton, Sauget or Springfield.
But the pandemic has changed how people can make bets at these locations. Gamblers are not allowed to stay inside; they must leave immediately after making a bet.
A recent bettor outside the Sauget parlor said the new restrictions make gambling on horse races less fun.
“You have to have a program, know what you want to bet,” he said. “You can’t watch the race, you have to check it online or come back later to see the results.” He asked not to be identified because he didn’t want his employer knowing he was gambling on a day off from work.
Not being at the track or inside the betting parlor removes much of the social aspect to horse gambling, he explained.
“It takes that group feel away from it,” he said.
Other bettors outside Sauget’s parlor, who also didn’t wish to be identified, questioned why casinos in Illinois were allowed to let gamblers inside, but racetracks were barred from having spectators outside.
Health experts have said outdoor spaces are generally safer compared to indoor spaces regarding the chance of catching the coronavirus.
Resuming races a lifeline for horse owners
The initial shutdown of Fairmount was painful for many of the people who own and race horses at the track, said Jim Watkins, president of the Illinois Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
“It was not like being unemployed,” he said. “Our work was still there, our costs were still there, but any earning opportunity was taken away with no racing.”
Watkins explained the expenses of raising, training and caring for racing horses continually accrue. Winning races is the way he pays for those costs, and he was planning on racing 60 days this year at Fairmount.
“During those 60 days we have to make enough money to sustain our business for the entire year,” he said. “We lost about a third, we lost about 20 of those days.”
By the time Fairmount resumed racing on June 9, the season was cut to 31 racing days from the 60 that were originally planned. Watkins told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the shutdown cost him nearly $20,000.
The remaining race days are a lifeline for Watkins and other owners, many of whom added horses to their stables in anticipation of more racing days at the track as mandated by last year’s gaming expansion, he said.
“We’ve all sacrificed knowing that the reward is being able to run,” Watkins said.
He admits the current revenue model for Fairmount is challenging, especially since the park is paying out more money to race winners this year compared to last. The track handles between $600,000 and $800,000 in wagers a race day this year, Watkins said.
“It’s not a great business model for Fairmount Park without spectators; still, with the online wagering they’re able to make it work for us,” he said.
Even during a global pandemic and the restrictions on racing, the track’s commitment to live racing is encouraging for Watkins. He said it shows how Fairmount’s management understands the value horse racing brings to the track, now that Fairmount can apply for a sports betting and a casino license.
“The big thing Fairmount Park ownership and management understand is having a strong racing program is going to do nothing but add to the overall program,” Watkins said.
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid