One-Track Mind

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

To witness Lou O'Brien's Shamrock Meadows Stable in action is to appreciate the truth of Krause's much-maligned proclamation. Hay is hung neatly in netted balls near each horse's stall. The coat of green-and-white paint that proclaims O'Brien's Irish heritage is uncharacteristically fresh, the barn's dirt meticulously raked. You believe O'Brien when he says he samples his stable's feed, which he has custom-mixed to his own specifications, before letting his horses eat it. ("I'll chew the hay myself," he swears. "Every once in a while, I'll get mouse dirt in there.")

"When you go to his shed row, it shines," O'Brien's friend and former foe Merwyn Sher attests. "He'll bring painters in -- it's like his house. He's such an extremist at what he does. If he doesn't win, it's not because he hasn't done everything. You can go to White Castle, or you can go to Tony's. Lou's stable is Tony's."

O'Brien met Raul Martinez about 35 years ago during an impromptu softball game on the Fairmount backstretch. O'Brien was playing second base and the trainer was in the outfield, but the primary focus was on draining a king's ransom of canned beer that awaited them on a bed of ice in the back of one trainer's pickup truck.

Jennifer Silverberg
And they're off!
Jennifer Silverberg
And they're off!

Back then, says O'Brien (who no longer drinks), Martinez had a wild mane of curly black hair and sported a cowboy hat that made him look like Pancho Villa. The two worked together for a short spell before Martinez set off for a meet in New Orleans. While there, Martinez fell on hard times financially. On hearing the news, O'Brien summoned the trainer for a meeting at a Holiday Inn near the Collinsville track. The two have had an exclusive owner-trainer relationship pretty much ever since. None of the men will divulge the details, but last year Raul and Ralph Martinez netted at least 10 percent (the minimum rate) of O'Brien's 2002 haul of $926,316 in winnings.

The exclusive arrangement is rare at Fairmount. Although a few owners employ only one trainer, most trainers work for more than one owner. O'Brien considers his relationship with Raul Martinez a bond as strong as brotherhood, and certainly it is cemented thoroughly by the two men's shared sense of tragedy. The owner lost a granddaughter and a sister to auto accidents; a few years ago, Martinez's daughter Becky died in a car crash.

"I run the business; they run the horses," O'Brien says of his trainers. "I win a lot of races, but they are the horse people."

Once in a while the tables turn. Last year, when Raul Martinez suggested that his boss buy a certain horse, O'Brien knew the purchase had a deeper meaning to his cohort. The horse's name: Becky B Mine. Ensconced at Shamrock Meadows, the filly promptly won her first three races at this year's meet.

"There's a lot of emotion in this," O'Brien admits. "It's not all scientific."

Tuesday is "Horse Hooky" day at Fairmount, one of several promotional gimmicks the track is pushing to help boost flagging attendance. Whereas "Wild Wed- nesdays" and "Party at the Park" Friday nights are geared toward young bloods more interested in pounding dollar beers than handicapping races, the opportunity to knock off at noon on Tuesday to play the ponies is perhaps Fairmount's purest promotion of its on-track product.

With fifteen minutes to post time in the first race, an old-timer from Philadelphia on a bench near the rail is trying to work out a trifecta bet. Trifecta wagers -- in which one attempts to divine the top three finishers in a race, in order -- can pay handsomely. But judging from Philly's amateurish grasp of the equine vernacular, his greenbacked goose is as good as cooked.

In fairness, though, few gambles are as complex as a horserace wager.

"It's the thinking man's wager," says Blood Horse editor Tom Lamarra. "It can take you twenty years to try and handicap races properly."

Still, Lou O'Brien asserts, "It's the cheapest afternoon you can have. If you come in with $20, the worst you can do is lose $20 -- and it's still the best entertainment value."

Competition for the entertainment dollar wasn't an issue for Fairmount in the days when patrons parked their cars out by the side of Highway 40 and walked in. But it has been a long time since horse racing reigned supreme in the sports world.

Some denizens of the track's backstretch community say privately that Fairmount's management has been arrogantly inflexible over the years and so has failed to transform the park into a fan-friendly experience. But even the most jaded point to Stiritz's purchase of the track and O'Brien's recently lapsed six-year tenure as president of the HBPA as positive developments. Racing secretary Bobby Pace says Stiritz was the driving force behind construction of the new simulcast center, and he gives O'Brien great credit for keeping the track on its feet during trying economic times.

"He was excellent to deal with, because he's a businessman," says Pace, a native Clevelander who pronounces his "the's" with a "d" and shares O'Brien's penchant for nicotine. "We got a lot accomplished with Lou that we didn't with prior [HBPA] administrations."

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