Fairmount Park in Collinsville has scheduled 60 racing days in 2020 — up from 40 this year.
But that schedule will require Fairmount to spend more money upfront to help pay race purses for the extra days. To do that, the track will allow its purse account to run a deficit next year, said Brian Zander, president of Fairmount Park.
“We’re going to pay it forward,” Zander said. “The purse is going to go into a deficit situation. On the basis, the management knows at some point that money will be coming in. There will be at some point, we don’t know when, there will be some casino and sports betting revenue coming into the track.”
When the gambling expansion was adopted by the legislature earlier this year, allowing sports wagering and casino-style gambling at horse racetracks in the state, one of the provisions was that Fairmount Park hold at least 700 races — enough for 100 racing days in 2020.
There was another stipulation in the law, though, that allowed for fewer days if the track and horsemen agreed it was the best route to take.
And money from those two sources from the gambling expansion, which is a tax revenue source set to help pay for the state’s $45 billion Rebuild Illinois Capital Plan, may not come in until the Illinois Gaming Board grants the corresponding licenses.
The first 5-7 months after the casino opens at the track will be used to pay down what horsemen have been paid, to recoup the overpayment, Zander said.
Jim Watkins, president of the Illinois Horsemen Benevolent and Protective Association, said during a racing board meeting that the horsemen supported the racing day plans for 2020.
“Fairmount has been creative and generous in working with us and we look forward to the rebuild of horse racing at Fairmount Park and statewide,” Watkins said.
With $60,000 to $80,000 paid out in purses per race day, it could lead to an additional expense next year of $1.6 million, without the casino or sports betting.
The purse account could be $2 million to $3 million in deficit at one point next year, Zander said.
But once the casino kicks in, the track expects to be able to recoup the cash.
“Depending on how successful we are, that money will start to accumulate,” he said.
The track usually runs seven races per day. During the 2019 season, Fairmount average 6.02 horses per race. Zander said ideally the average would be at least seven horses per race.
Zander said having enough horses to participate in 100 days worth of races may take some time as it takes three years for a horse to make it to the racetrack after being born.
The park had asked for many years for permission to have another revenue source to help increase purses to attract more horses to the track. Over the years, while the park waited for action from the General Assembly, it gradually reduced its racing days.
In the 2018 season, Fairmount Park even decided to cut its season short, only running 36 out of the 41 scheduled days because of finances.
Fairmount’s season for next year will also start earlier, with a March 3 opening day. Fairmount scheduled racing for two days a week, Tuesday and Saturday, from March 3 through May 31.
It then plans to go to three days a week, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from June 1 through July 11. Then the track will go back to two days a week, Tuesday and Saturday, from July 12 through Sept. 7. The last day of the 2020 season is scheduled for Labor Day.
The sports wagering wait
While a new casino will be built at the track, one revenue source that conceivably wouldn’t require new construction is sports wagering.
A public comment period for input on sports betting rules runs through Friday. However when sports betting rules will be completed has yet to be determined.
There is no timeline from the Illinois Gaming Board on when the rulemaking will be finished, said Gene O’Shea, a spokesman for the agency. The rules would set up how the process for applying for sports betting licenses would take place.
Zander said there was hope for sports wagering to be up and running by the beginning of football season.
“Then that didn’t happen,” Zander said. “Then somebody said, ‘Well we’d like to take bets on the Super Bowl.’ I don’t know about that. Now we’re down to ‘You think we’ll be able to bet on the Final Four at the end of March?’ It keeps shifting down the road a little bit.”
He said existing parts of the park could be adjusted to allow for sports wagers once its up and running.
“With Fairmount, we have a simulcasting center, with large rooms with large TVs. They happen to show horse races now,” Zander said. “If it were allowed, and we were to be licensed, that could easily be converted to the NFL Sunday ticket.”
When is the casino coming?
The gaming expansion bill specifically allowed Fairmount Park to have up to 900 casino-style gaming positions. But when those will be operating is still up in the air.
However, Fairmount Park still had to formally apply to the Illinois Gaming Board for a casino license. That application is being reviewed.
“We have to first get the application process totally complete, that’s going to take a little bit,” Zander said.
Zander said he estimates the size of the casino operation will probably be about the same size as the Casino Queen, which is about 40,000 square feet of gaming space.
“The quandary is we don’t want to underbuild it and have people mad they can’t get a seat, but we don’t want to overbuild it and the place is empty all the time,” Zander said.
Zander has previously said he expects the casino facility to cost at least $50 million to construct, which includes pave parking on the site.
The park also is considering a temporary gaming facility on site, after its casino license is approved, while a permanent structure is built.
Once up and running Zander said he expects the casino operation to run 22 hours a day, have 400 full-time workers and 100 part-time workers.
Joseph Bustos is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
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