The return to action could not have gone much smoother Tuesday afternoon for FanDuel Sportsbook and Horse Racing, formerly known as Fairmount Park, in Collinsville.
Kicking off its 96th season with a seven-race card — the track’s first with fans since March 10, 2020 — FanDuel provided the crowd, limited to 1,700 because of government-mandated restrictions due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with plenty of horse-racing excitement as well as an opportunity to rub elbows with some old and new racetrack friends.
With partly cloudy skies, temperatures in the low 80s and a comfortable breeze throughout the facility, conditions were near-perfect for the opening day of the racing season.
“We’re thrilled and excited to have fans back with us,” Melissa Helton, president and general manager of the track said late last week. “We’ve cleaned up the facility, changed the color of our scoreboard to match the blue of our FanDuel colors and we’re in the process of upgrading our television monitors throughout the facility.”
The facility’s sportsbook, the third in the area since Illinois legalized sports wagering, opened last month. A casino is expected to break ground soon. The goal of the expansion is to increase race purses, thus attracting better horses and larger fields for each race.
Because of COVID-19 mandates, attendance will be limited to start the racing season. About 500 reserved seats at tables will be sold, with general admission limited to 600 spectators inside and 600 outside. All patrons will be required to wear a mask, per government regulations, unless they are eating or drinking.
Tuesday’s festivities began shortly before 1 p.m. when four skydivers descended onto the facility, with the final one carrying an American flag. Not long after that, Collinsville High junior Willy Grieb kicked off the race program with his bugle.
“I’m excited to be part of the program and expect to be performing here throughout the season,” Grieb said.
The 53-day schedule at FanDuel will run through Monday, Sept. 6. It will include live racing every Tuesday (and Monday, Sept. 6) at 1 p.m. This Saturday’s program, on Kentucky Derby day, will also begin at 1 p.m.
But the remainder of the Saturday programs will start at 7:30 p.m. Racing on Fridays, beginning on June 4 and running through Sept. 3, will also begin at 7:30 p.m.
The St. Louis Derby, last run in 2006, will return on Saturday, Aug. 28, with a purse of $250,000.
Last season, Fairmount had just three race programs with spectators before the season was suspended due to COVID-19. And when it returned, there were no fans as betting was limited to online or at walk-in facilities that allowed people to wager and then leave immediately.
“Last year was long … and difficult,” Helton said.
Tom Seib lived the first 40 years of his life in Collinsville and never once visited Fairmount.
That changed Tuesday.
“I guess I wanted to see how the other half lives,” kidded Seib, who’s worked the last eight years at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs, Arkansas. “I’m here to enjoy myself and to make bets with another teller.”
And how’s that working out? “I’m 0-for-everything so far, but that’s not the point. The important thing is to have fun at the track; if you’re not having fun, you’re taking things way too seriously. For me, coming to the track is about enjoying myself and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
Seib continued: “You can’t take yourself too seriously, especially with what all these tracks have dealt with in the last year or so. Last year, after March 21, Oaklawn basically shut down; the only ones at the track were the owners, the trainers, the jockeys and the horses. I watched it on TV and I bet on my phone, but it wasn’t the same.”
Seib, who’s in town to visit relatives and to see three St. Louis Cardinals’ games, said Oaklawn will shut down for the season after the running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. Among the horses set to compete at Churchill Downs is race favorite Essential Quality, a horse that has starred at Oaklawn.
“We’ve had a lot of great horses through Oaklawn and this year is no different,” Seib said. “Now that I’ve spent some time at tracks and know a little more about racing, it’s much more comfortable to walk into a place like this and see the operation. You walk out to the rail and there’s a feeling like you’ve never felt before. If you’ve never experienced live racing, you’re missing out on that little slice of life you should experience at least once. You don’t have to spend money — today, parking and admission were free — and I got here early just so I’d have plenty of time to soak it all in.”
Helton said online tickets for Saturday’s program, which includes the Kentucky Derby, sold out in 25 minutes.
She added that gates for general admission will open Saturday at 8 a.m.
“At this point, it’s first-come, first-served,” Helton said.
The Kentucky Derby experience at FanDuel will include a megabet drawing that will allow one lucky winner a chance to bet $100 to win on a Kentucky Derby contender. The track also added a new “Pick Seven” bet offered each day of live racing where bettors will try to select the winners of that day’s first seven races. And if there’s no winner, the pool will carry over to the next day and could build to a substantial amount.