Fairmount Park Racetrack is filled with spectators on most Tuesdays and Saturdays, eager to watch horses fly down the dirt track.
But with just 41 live racing days this year, the stands at the Collinsville track remain empty far more days than they’re filled.
A recent gambling-expansion law in Illinois could change the track’s fortunes. Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the bill in June, which was long-sought by the horse racing industry. Racetracks can now apply for licenses to host table games like blackjack and roulette, slots, video gaming and sports betting.
The move couldn’t come fast enough for Brian Zander, president and general manager of Fairmount.
“I didn’t know where our future was going,” he said. “Even 2020 was a little uncertain for us.”
Competition from other casinos in the St. Louis region and video gambling terminals in Illinois slowly cut into the track’s profits over two decades, creating a domino effect. The track scaled back prizes for race winners, horse owners left for nearby states, and Fairmount cut live racing days.
“The problem is we haven’t been able to generate enough because of all the competition that we’ve had,” Zander said. “We’ve not been on an equal playing field.”
Members of the Illinois horse racing industry have pushed for this kind of gambling expansion in the state for nearly 20 years. The new law stipulates Fairmount eventually run 700 races a year for the track to keep its gaming license, which translates to about 100 days of racing.
The statute also requires racetracks allot 12.75% of their gross revenue up to $93 million to racing purses. The percentages increase when revenues eclipse $93 million, but Zander said he does not expect Fairmount will break that barrier for a while.
But he does expect the increased revenue from gambling at the track to roughly double purse amounts and sharpen Fairmount’s competitive edge.
“We have constantly been on the defensive, and now I think we have an opportunity to go on the offensive,” Zander said.
Others in the state are skeptical the bill will deliver on its promises. Tom Swoik is the executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, which represents nine of the state’s 10 casinos.
“There’s going to be so many new venues that basically you’re not creating many new gamblers, or any new gamblers,” he said. “You’re just moving money around from 10 casinos to 21.”
Swoik said the gambling market in Illinois is saturated, especially around the St. Louis region. Track officials and horse owners acknowledge that reality.
“Certainly it’s going to be competitive as it always is for the entertainment/gambling dollar,” Jim Watkins said.
Watkins owns horses that race at Fairmount and is also a member of the Illinois Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association board of directors. The HBPA represents horse owners and trainers in Illinois and lobbied lawmakers for the expansion.
Both Watkins and Zander argue that live racing coupled with casino gaming and sports betting will make Fairmount a unique destination.
Any immediate physical changes to the track are still distant, though buildings there haven’t seen upgrades since the 1970s. Fairmount must first apply for its gaming licenses and wait for the Illinois Gaming Board to set new rules and regulations.
“I don’t think we can do it next year, because this stuff doesn’t happen overnight,” Zander said. “I’m pointing to 2021 as when we can actually go full blown.”
Those are the best odds the track has had in some time.
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
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Correction: The Illinois Racing Board scheduled 41 race days in 2018. A previous version of this graphic misstated the number of race days scheduled for that year.