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In his early days, O'Brien bred horses and brought their progeny to the track. It wasn't until he abandoned breeding in favor of the less romantic art of claiming -- plucking horses from races in which they're entered for a price tag -- that he began to find success. But whereas most owners who reach O'Brien's stature would be tempted to move their home base to a more prestigious track and take aim at more money, O'Brien continues to ply his meticulous trade at Fairmount, a track that has been perennially fighting for its own life in an industry engaged in a longtime struggle for viability.
"If there's a guy at this track who's paid his dues, it's Lou," says longtime Fairmount race announcer John Scully. "He went through many years where he took big losses. What they've done the past two years is unbelievable."
Merwyn Sher affectionately refers to his friend Lou O'Brien as "Little Asshole." O'Brien returns the favor by calling Sher "Big Asshole."
Buzz O'Brien at his Chesterfield office and be prepared to be greeted with one of his preferred salutations, "Whaddya want, dickhead?"
"Most people are afraid of him," says Sher. "He can be intimidating, to the point where someone wants to hit him over the head with a two-by-four. Lou's always honest, and sometimes people can't handle the truth."
To spend time with O'Brien and his entourage is to get the sense the horse owner likes to keep his sphere of intimacy to a select thick-skinned few.
After all, there's only so much room in the winner's circle.
Lou O'Brien saw his first horse in his neighbor's yard as an eight-year-old growing up in South St. Louis. The neighbor made a proposition: You take care of the horse, you can ride it. Smitten, the boy accepted the offer. O'Brien bought his first racehorse, Speck's Bomber, for $350 when he was eighteen.
"I brushed his teeth -- all that stupid shit you don't have to do," O'Brien remembers.
Giddy, as young hotshots are, O'Brien entered Speck's Bomber in a race at Cahokia Downs. The horse fractured a leg during that first race and never ran again.
Subsequent equine investments didn't turn out much better. By his own account, O'Brien didn't make a dime during his first twenty years as an owner. In large part his lack of success boiled down to an unshakable emotional attachment to his horses, which he was reluctant to cut loose even on the downslopes of their careers.
"He'd fall in love with horses and race them forever. He'd name horses after his grandson and never run the horse in the race where it belonged because he didn't want to lose it," Sher recalls.
O'Brien tells of the time, more than 30 years ago, when he entered a horse named Favorite Box in a claiming race. "Some guy from Denver claimed him for $2,500," he recounts. "I ran out of the grandstand and was gonna beat the shit out of the guy." Trainer Raul Martinez restrained O'Brien from resorting to physical violence. But he couldn't stop his boss from claiming back the horse two weeks later for $3,000. O'Brien never ran Favorite Box again. "He was my baby -- short and fat, just like me," says the owner.
Today Favorite Box is 36 years old -- far beyond the expected lifespan of a racehorse. His coat is shabby but his eyes are alert, a trait that compels O'Brien to think that his baby will outlive its owner.
"He's probably the one who got me hooked," says O'Brien. "He had so much heart."
Heart may be a necessary trait in a horse, but it usually works to the detriment of the animal's owner. In a game that demands a hard heart, Lou O'Brien was a softy. If he was to become a top-flight owner, he'd have to learn to temper his paternal attachment to the creatures he called his pets.
You wouldn't think it to look at the place, but Fairmount Park is kin to Churchill Downs, the twin-spired standard-bearer of Thoroughbred racing and home of the Kentucky Derby. Built in 1924, Fairmount was modeled after its Kentucky cousin, and for a few years in the mid-'20s, both tracks were owned by the same company.
Alternating Thoroughbred and Standardbred (harness-racing) meets with nearby Cahokia Downs, Fairmount enjoyed robust attendance through the 1960s, with cars often parking all up and down what was then Highway 40. In those pre-lottery, pre-casino days, if you wanted to gamble, you flew to Atlantic City or Vegas or you drove to the track. In 1974, Fairmount's grandstand burned to the ground. After the fire, the track's owner, Ogden Foods, got $10 million in insurance money to rebuild. Unfortunately, the concession giant gave fans a hot dog with no mustard.
"We wish the grandstand was built a little differently," concedes Fairmount racing secretary Bobby Pace, who has set the conditions and fields for all of Fairmount's races since 1985. (Pet-food magnate William Stiritz purchased the track in 2000.) "Anybody in the mezzanine level has to come downstairs to bet."
And Fairmount's main betting area is no palace: With its cement floors, bare-bones concession stands, brightly painted wall of betting windows and television monitors suspended from the ceiling for simulcast viewing, the cavernous space resembles nothing so much as a prison commons. The track's south wing, which features the Black Stallion and Turf clubs as well as a simulcast-only lounge that recently benefited from a million-dollar upgrade, is ritzier but far from first-class.
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