Illinois Gambling Horse Tracks

In this April 21, 2015, file photo, a fan watches as horses head to the starting gate at Fairmount Park in Collinsville.

COLLINSVILLE — As the 94th season at Fairmount Park arrives, track president Brian Zander wants to be confident.

The park, in Collinsville, opens Tuesday at 1 p.m. and will run through Sept. 14 with a Tuesday and Saturday schedule. Zander has no reason to believe that will change.

An unsuccessful battle to bring slot machines and video gaming to Illinois race tracks continues to make the future tenuous. But Zander, who has been on the job since 1986, has been through this for more years than he'd like to remember.

"I think for 2019 that we're going to be OK," he said. "Beyond that, it's really hard to say."

Trips to Springfield, Ill., to work on legislative efforts that could boost the track are now routine. Fairmount continues to offer live simulcasts and wagering on races at other tracks to generate more revenue.

"From that standpoint we're doing great," Zander said. "But we're competing with other tracks in other states that have slots and gaming, and we simply lack that in terms of generating money for purses. That's what horse owners have to be driven toward. We're running behind and need to catch up."

Zander's hope for 2019 is a bit different from a year ago, when there were two plans: complete a full slate of racing dates or close on July 3 if no new funding was realized through the Illinois legislature.

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In announcing the new season, the track's press release included a note that it is "engaged in an ongoing statewide effort to bring slot machines and/or video gaming to Illinois tracks."

"For people who work here, it's hard to make it on two days a week," Zander said. "That's why when I go to Springfield, I'm talking about wanting to make jobs full time, not part time.

"It's probably a little too early to tell, but it does appear the new governor is looking at some different things that weren't discussed the last four years."

Among the possibilities discussed by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is instituting sports betting, which could be a boon for Fairmount.

In the meantime, the track does what it can to market itself, create as much revenue as possible and lure horses. One of the positives, as far as Zander is concerned, is that Fairmount has a loyal fan base.

He has seen a trend through the years that when the Blues and Cardinals are successful, more people tend to go to the track. That gives him an extra reason to be pleased by the Blues' turnaround and the arrival of the baseball season with renewed hope for the Cardinals.

"What we've tried in terms of marketing is using more social media, and that's helpful with the younger fans, which is what we're trying to cultivate," he said. "Racing, like a lot of things, has an aging demographic. There's so many things out there for 21-year-olds to do. Even the casinos are perplexed in trying to get the millennial crowd. So the approach is to give you the best possible time for a four-hour window."

Fairmount is one of three remaining race tracks in Illinois, along with Arlington and Hawthorne, both in the Chicago area.

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