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"It's probably the toughest, cheapest track in the country," sums up Rick Rudolph, who co-owned several horses with O'Brien in the 1980s. "Lou and I brought some horses up from Florida and thought we'd clean up, but it was tough."
One way to judge a racetrack's quality is to look at its purse structure -- how big a pot is split among the owners of the top-finishing horses. The rule of thumb is simple: The better the horses, the bigger the purses. "The average total purse in one day is, like, $250,000" at Arlington Park, Fairmount's Chicago-area sibling, says Tom Lamarra, news editor of the Kentucky-based Blood Horse magazine. "Then you've got a track like Fairmount, which might be $60,000 per day. So obviously you're not going to get the quality of horses at Fairmount as you are at Arlington.
Still, Lamarra agrees with Rudolph's assessment of Fairmount's reputation as tiny but tough. He compares the track to Mountaineer Park and Charles Town in West Virginia, where the purses are bigger. "Pound for pound, I'm not sure the horses [in West Virginia] are any better," Lamarra says. "But at Fairmount you have to overcome this stigma because of how horses are perceived at lower purse levels."
Fairmount is also at a disadvantage in the realm of simulcast wagering. Though simulcasting -- which allows bettors all over the nation to wager on races at distant sites -- is a potential goldmine for a track, bottom-of-the-pecking-order tracks such as Fairmount don't get a big piece of the pie and are typically forced to schedule live racing during the more prestigious tracks' off hours. Pace, Fairmount's racing secretary, estimates that his track's simulcast signal is available at only 25 locations outside Illinois at any one time. By contrast, there isn't a track or off-track-betting site in the nation that doesn't carry Arlington.
Taking a drag from the omnipresent Pall Mall situated between his left index and middle fingers, O'Brien muses on his pipe dream that Fairmount's infield will one day include "some lakes and alligators to make it look like Gulfstream," the Miami-area track that is one of the owner's two favorites (the other being Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky).
For many Fairmount owners, a track such as Gulfstream is an unattainable equine utopia that's spoken about longingly rather than experienced firsthand. Not so with O'Brien, who employs spotters -- the horse-racing equivalent of baseball scouts -- to comb tracks nationwide for horses that might be one savvy claim away from Shamrock Meadows. From his home or office in Chesterfield, O'Brien functions as the eye in the sky, ingesting as many races as possible by way of satellite and his computer. During racing season he's up early and rarely sleeps. Right now, he says, he has his eye on a couple of horses in Texas and Ohio.
O'Brien used to breed horses on a farm he owned in De Soto. "That's where you can really get hammered -- and I think he did," says Fairmount announcer John Scully. "He said the hell with [breeding] and got back into the claiming game."
Eventually O'Brien gave up his farm and breeding operation and moved his base of operations to a leased barn a few miles from the track in Collinsville. In doing so, he resigned himself to the reality that Shamrock Meadows would probably never produce a Kentucky Derby winner. O'Brien observers saw this shift in focus as a major turning point in the owner's career.
On the surface, the "claiming game" seems simple: A horse entered in a claiming race is offered for sale by its owner at a set price and may be "claimed" by another owner before the race. But behind the basics lies a complex set of subtleties. O'Brien calls claiming events the "great equalizers" -- a check-and-balance system that rewards owners who are adept at spotting winners and avoiding plodders, and one that also prevents fat cats from entering horses in races for which they're overqualified. At a third-tier track such as Fairmount, claiming races are far more commonplace than the more prestigious allowance or stakes contests.
In 2002 O'Brien claimed 49 horses from other owners and surrendered 39 by the same route. His horses finished in the money roughly 60 percent of the time. So far this year, that figure is up to 64 percent.
By abandoning the costly practice of breeding, O'Brien was able to transfer financial resources to expansion. At any one time, he now owns upward of 70 horses -- double what most of his fellow Fairmount owners possess. Such volume allows his stable to enter multiple races on a day's card, regardless of the eligibility requirements, or conditions, set by the racing secretary. Whereas a lesser stable might be forced to race a horse at an uncomfortable distance or against more accomplished foes, O'Brien rarely, if ever, suffers such a fate.
"He's doing quite well," says the Blood Horse's Tom Lamarra. "For someone to have that kind of percentage, he -- and his trainer -- must be good at picking out horses that fit and running them at the right level. Not always an easy thing to do in this game."