One-Track Mind

On top of old Fairmount: Collinsville's humble racecourse is home to one of the nation's winningest Thoroughbred owners

Trainer Ralph Martinez puts it a slightly different way: "You can't [expect to] claim the Kentucky Derby winner. But by the same token, there's only one Kentucky Derby winner every year."

With his curly mullet, goatee and deep country-fried voice, Rod Peck is a dead ringer for Ron Livingston's drywalling neighbor in the cult classic Office Space. In addition to filing stories for the handicapper's bible known as the Daily Racing Form and drafting charts for the indispensable horse data outfit Equibase, Peck is a jockeys' agent. Although trainers generally regard agents as slimy, superfluous middlemen wheedling to skim from a jockey's cut, Peck's innate salesmanship is about the only avenue for inexperienced jockeys such as Renee Torbit to cadge the occasional mount.

Top Fairmount jockeys such as Luis Espinosa can earn upwards of $150,000 a year.
Jennifer Silverberg
Top Fairmount jockeys such as Luis Espinosa can earn upwards of $150,000 a year.
O’Brien’s 36-year-old “baby,” Favorite Box
Jennifer Silverberg
O’Brien’s 36-year-old “baby,” Favorite Box

Hunkering down over breakfast with Peck at the diner run by the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, Torbit -- who grew up in the Missouri town of Salem -- reveals that she's also an artist. She has, it seems, assembled a makeshift gallery in her tiny room in the shabby but free dorms reserved for struggling jockeys and grooms on the backstretch. Though Peck has only scored a handful of mounts for Torbit since the season began in early April, the HBPA and O'Brien have each commissioned her to paint images of star horses -- O'Brien's being Glit, his eight-year-old sprinter.

"Lou comes off as kind of gritty, but he's a great guy," says Peck. "Lou does a lot of philanthropic things that don't match his image. He's helped people out on the backstretch."

Rick Rudolph concurs. "Back in the day, when we were there all the time, he couldn't get from one end of the backstretch to another without someone asking him for money," says Rudolph. "I'll bet I've seen him give away $20,000 in $20 bills. Lou's probably been broke before. He really has empathy for people who are trying."

When Lou O'Brien was eleven, his mother died while giving birth to his younger brother, Ricky. O'Brien had barely unpacked his books at Roosevelt High School when his father, a carpenter, fell ill, forcing Lou to shelve his studies to help put food on the table for his three siblings.

"He worked at a camera shop," wife Lois recounts. "He gave all his money to [his family] other than $10 every paycheck -- that was for lunches and bus fare. So his father always said, 'You're gonna be nobody,' and he just said no."

Shortly thereafter O'Brien ran away from home to live with his buddy Joe Durham on Botanical Avenue, near Tower Grove Park. At the time, Durham was dating one of Lois' best friends. One night he arranged for O'Brien to meet his girlfriend's sister at a skating rink near the old Arena on Oakland Avenue. Unbeknownst to the fifteen-year-old running mates, the sister already had a boyfriend. But fortunately for O'Brien, Lois was at the rink that day. The pair married six months later. On June 29 they'll celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

To support his new bride, O'Brien lied about his age and began working as a door-to-door salesman. Then Lois' father helped him get a job at Colonial Baking, a South Side food broker. By age 26 he'd worked his way up to sales manager, overseeing 50 men. But he was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his day job. It was at about this time, Lois says, that O'Brien up and bought a bar -- complete with go-go dancers -- on Morganford Street. But the Lamppost Lounge venture didn't last long.

"That was a bad place," Lois says. "After closing, I would carry the money to the car, and he would be behind me with a gun. One day he was tending bar and the whole place was shot up. He jumps over the bar and goes after these guys. I said, 'Get down -- we've got four kids at home!' He wound up selling it back to the people he bought it from."

O'Brien managed to stay the course in the food-brokerage industry, steadily climbing a food chain that culminated in the formation of O'Brien & Associates some 25 years ago.

"Without my [food brokerage], I wouldn't be as heavily involved in horse racing," the owner says.

Still, it wasn't easy. In 1993, the Chesterfield office of O'Brien & Associates was gutted by floodwaters.

"The flood knocked the soup out of him," his friend Rick Rudolph recalls. "It made him appreciate what he had. This happened Friday; he was up and running in a Holiday Inn Monday. Nobody missed a paycheck. They rented multiple rooms -- it was tremendously expensive."

Lou's son Louie III, who works as senior vice president of O'Brien & Associates, sees the catastrophe as a light-switch moment in his father's life.

"I think he's changed dramatically. The '93 flood changed his whole life, his perspective on things," Louie O'Brien says. "He was one intense son-of-a-bitch back in the '70s and '80s. He's gotten more comfortable with the people around him -- he doesn't worry too much."

"Players don't win championships. Organizations win championships."

When those words were uttered by then-Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, they were dismissed as an insecure verbal burp uttered by an irrelevant suit. Short, fat and dweebishly impish, Krause presided over the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen-Phil Jackson NBA dynasty, playing Jabba the Hutt to Jordan's Han Solo during the Bulls' six-title run in the 1990s. But it was Krause who, among other things, dealt for the rights to Pippen and fired Doug Collins to hire a then-untested Jackson.

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