Brian Zander, the president at Fairmount Park, nearly had given up hope.
The horse-racing track in Collinsville will soon be part of a massive gambling expansion that recently was passed by the Illinois General Assembly.
“After 19 years, I guess there’s optimistic and and cautiously optimistic,” Zander kidded. “Up until the time this legislation passed the house, I was pretty darned nervous. At that point, I took a deep breath and started to realize that this might finally happen.”
Governor J.B. Pritzker has indicated he will sign the legislation, which also includes six new casinos and legalized sports betting in Illinois. Fairmount is expected to add slot machines, table games and sports betting and could more than double its number of race days by next year. It is not clear yet when the gambling expansion would begin.
“Our average purse today, maybe (is) $6,000 or $7,000. Now that sounds like a lot, but it’s not if you have to train, feed and house the horses,” Zander said. “In the future, that same winning horse, maybe he gets $15,000 for a win.
“It’s great for Fairmount and for the horsemen in this area.”
Zander and state representatives Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) and Katie Stuart (D-Edwardsville) met with media during Fairmount’s racing program Tuesday afternoon.
“We wanted to do an infrastructure bill and we passed a $45 billion dollar road, bridge, educational facility, state facilities and capital bill,” Hoffman explained. “You always need a way to pay for that, so we decided one of the ways to pay was through enhanced gaming.
“This is all part of a comprehensive package to help pay for construction of the infrastructure. By doing that, I think we made sure people were aware of the fact that Fairmount was in a position, an unequal position, versus other tracks in other states. We’re the only state in the nation that has both casino gaming and racetracks that doesn’t have one of two things — either slots at the tracks or some kind of revenue share for the casinos.
“This will, I believe, allow this track to compete and allow the purses to significantly increase.”
Stuart added: “The other dynamic this year was sports betting. The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court (last year to legalize sports betting nationwide) made a big difference. That was a new piece of the puzzle that was being worked in.
“I helped come up with an idea to deal with an issue called the ‘Penalty Box,’ allowing our existing brick-and-mortar locations an opportunity to get into that online space before the market was dominated by outside entities. So Fairmount and the Casino Queen and everyone else have a chance to get into that online market, to build up a platform, and get customers and users.”
Fairmount has 41 race days, with seven races daily, this season. Zander said the new bill calls for a minimum requirement of 700 races during a season.
“That’s more than double what we have now,” he said. “That will basically take the employees we have now from very small part-time jobs to essentially full time. And it means that the horsemen won’t have to ship out and race other places. Their homes are in southern Illinois and in Missouri and this will allow them to stay here and race closer to home.”
Zander also made mention of Fairmount’s 22-acre infield area.
“It can literally hold 100,000 people for a concert,” he said. “I don’t know if we’d get one that big, but we can definitely be more than a racetrack and become more of an entertainment destination.”