Runt Of Illinois Horse Racing Litter Miraculously Poised To Outlast Arlington

Tom Finkel was in the midst of “the eight-year undergrad plan” at Washington University in St. Louis when he became a regular at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant down the road that routinely hosted performances by Chuck Berry.

One of Finkel’s fellow regulars was a taxi driver who would head east across the Mississippi River to bet on horses at Fairmount Park every Friday night after he got off work. The cabbie would then, in Finkel’s retelling, return to Blueberry Hill for a nightcap “and regale you with stories of all his bad bets.”

For Finkel, “it was like somebody just opened a portal to another world.”

Finkel now lives in South Florida, where he’s editor-in-chief of Miami New Times, and he credits Fairmount with helping to convince him to become a journalist. (Finkel was my editor when I worked at The Riverfront Times in St. Louis and helped persuade me to become a mediocre sports bettor.)

“There was mystique around Fairmount from my late adolescent years,” he said. “When I found out about it, I was like, ‘This is the coolest place on Earth.’ And they raced at night, which made it even more forbidden and weird and wonderful. You get off the highway and there it is in the middle of nowhere. There were these people there who obviously lived there. They were older and they smoked brands of cigarettes that you never even knew existed — Kents and Old Golds, something out of a Tom Waits song. And they brought their own lawn chairs — not just to sit outside, but to sit inside. It was a culture, and I was completely wowed by it.”

‘It makes no sense’

Erected in rural Collinsville, Ill., in 1924,  Fairmount was modeled after Churchill Downs and even shared a parent company with the twin-spired track at one point. Like most American racing venues, it was at least mildly successful until the proliferation of state lotteries and local casinos in the late 1900s. Once it became just another gambling option instead of the gambling option, crowds and betting handle started on a steady downward trajectory that seemed destined to end in the track’s closure.

That free-fall is over — but Fairmount is still standing. Or, rather, FanDuel Sportsbook and Horse Racing, as Fairmount was recently rechristened, is still taking bets and hosting races — including last Saturday night’s $250,000 St. Louis Derby, which, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, is the richest race that’s ever been run at the hardscrabble track. 

“It was just wonderful,” said Finkel, who watched a replay of the race at home. “The biggest race that Fairmount has seen in my lifetime, of course it has to be run at night.”

For decades, the struggling track tried in vain to secure some sort of revenue stream — slots, a racino, whatever — to improve upon its hand-to-mouth existence as the runt of the Illinois racing litter. Now, remarkably, it stands poised to outlast regal Arlington International Racecourse near Chicago, long considered to be one of the nation’s, if not the world’s, greatest tracks. Arlington’s future has been seriously imperiled by the decision of its owner, Churchill Downs Inc., to sell the property it sits on — presumably to a developer who has no plans to offer any kind of sports wagering that would compete with a nearby casino in which CDI holds a majority stake. In the likely scenario such a sale comes to pass, the modern architectural marvel that is Arlington Park will soon be reduced to rubble.

Like everyone interviewed for this story, Pat Cummings could never — even just three years ago — have foreseen a scenario where Fairmount would outlive Arlington. But with CDI more focused on shareholder value and general gaming than its legacy business of horse racing, and with mobile sportsbook operators looking for brick-and-mortar partners wherever they can find them in the wake of PASPA’s repeal, these are strange, new times.

“This is another convoluted chapter in the decades-long saga of not just racing in Illinois, but racing in America,” said Cummings, executive director of the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation. “You have a jewel of racing that is seemingly on the verge of being eliminated and probably torn down, and this 95-year-old facility that has been hanging on by a thread for decades given a new lease. These two facilities have always been at extreme opposites of each other.

“For CDI and its stockholders, it makes complete sense. To every other party  — horse racing stakeholders, the people of Arlington Heights, the greater international horse racing community — it makes no sense,” Cummings continued. “The Arlington Million card was bringing in international horses and was a precursor to the Breeders’ Cup. It makes it clear that, at the end of the day, money and business decisions guide these things.”

Indeed they do, which is how Fairmount Park became FanDuel Sportsbook and Horse Racing. The partnership is mutually beneficial: For the first time in forever, someone needed Fairmount to grow its business as much as Fairmount needed someone else’s help to survive.

Racino expected to open during 2022 meet

FanDuel’s sportsbook opened where the track’s OTB parlor used to be in March of this year. The book’s business has since been brisk, with an overall handle of just shy of $2.5 million through the end of June, according to Illinois Gaming Board figures. Additionally, FanDuel posted revenue of nearly $240,000 during this span for a win rate of 9.67%, with handle increasing each month from some $286,000 in March to about $977,000 in June.

“I was there for the opening night of racing season and people came in for racing and trickled into the sportsbook,” said Brian Joseph, FanDuel’s Midwest regional manager. “Then I was there for the St. Louis Derby, and the book was full before the track was. Heading into football season, we’ll be the reason why people are there.”

Conscious of the tax windfall that has fattened its neighbor’s coffers, there have been rumblings in Missouri’s legislature that the Show-Me State may legalize sports wagering sometime soon. Should this happen, Joseph said, “It’d be foolish to say it wouldn’t affect us in any way, but I do see our core customer coming from southern Illinois. It’s inevitable that there’s going to be a lot more competition.”

While FanDuel is under no legislative obligation to invest its sportsbook’s proceeds into the racing operation, the company has pledged to do so anyway — and has thus far delivered. Trainer Jim Watkins, who’s long been based at the Collinsville track and is president of the Illinois Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (ILHBPA), said FanDuel’s been responsible for “a lot of little things,” adding, “I see the signs that things are going to be done right.”

The track’s horsemen are guaranteed to receive a cut of all proceeds generated by a racino — replete with those long-desired slot machines — that will be built in the existing grandstand and is expected to be at least partially open by the start of the 2022 meet. (FanDuel’s current live racing meet ends on Monday.)

“FanDuel’s a good name and it’s good to have at that track,” said KMOX Sports Director Tom Ackerman, who had a personal-endorsement deal with the sportsbook operator for a spell. “That track has been through a lot. Really, especially when you grew up here, you respect that. You know they’ve been part of this community for a long time. It’s almost like when you go over there, you pay your respects and honor the people who’ve come by there. They’ve tried to get slot machines installed, the sportsbook — and now they have it.”

With additional reporting by Chris Altruda.