By Lindsay Toler
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By Allison Babka
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By Jake Rossen
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One Fairmount rival says O'Brien was at times dictatorial in his approach to HBPA leadership.
"He took over; he didn't ask the board's advice," says Ron Brandenburg, who was Fairmount's leading trainer before the O'Brien-Martinez juggernaut rolled in. "So I just didn't run [for the HBPA board] again. I was on it twenty-some years."
When Cahokia Downs was shuttered in 1979, Fairmount Park became, by default, the undisputed runt of the Illinois racetrack litter. It wasn't surprising, then, that when the state racing board came looking for a spot to site an unprofitable harness-racing meet, Fairmount took it in the shorts -- to the tune of some $2 million in annual losses, according to Thoroughbred owner and trainer Lanny Brooks, who serves on the HBPA's board.
During his tenure as HBPA president, O'Brien succeeded in shutting down the track's harness meet. But by that time Fairmount was dealing with an even thornier problem: the proliferation of riverboat casinos in the St. Louis area.
In order to compete with the casinos, Illinois racetracks have taken an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach, lobbying the Legislature to pass a bill allowing the tracks to install slot machines. This gambit has worked in other states, where the revenue jolt has boosted purses, attracting better horses and more of them. In turn, more entries in each race means better betting propositions for gamblers -- and more money for the tracks.
Lanny Brooks says that after expressing initial support for the gaming bill, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich "totally shocked" the Illinois horse-racing community by withdrawing his backing in the waning days of the legislative session. Without the governor's support, the bill failed. As a result, Brooks predicts, Fairmount will have to end its meet three weeks earlier than this year's scheduled October 18 closure -- and the purse strings will likely be even tighter next year.
"Slot machines are our savior," adds Brooks, whose wife, Janice, is O'Brien's cousin. "If things continue as they are, we'll go out of business. Then they'll be lamenting the fact that we used to have horse racing."
Thirty-two-year-old jockey Luis Espinosa, who won the fifth race for O'Brien aboard Mississaugas Magic on Derby Day, has been Shamrock Meadows' undisputed ace since the start of the 2003 meet. He also resides at the pinnacle of Fairmount's jockey standings when it comes to wins, earnings and in-the-money finishes. Such status, however, does not exempt Espinosa from O'Brien's indefatigable needling, nor does it place him above the occasional daylong benching for off-track antics.
The cheerful, cocky Espinosa -- who has raced in Saudi Arabia and plans on heading to the Fair Grounds in New Orleans after the Fairmount meet ends -- says he probably wouldn't race at all at the Collinsville track were it not for O'Brien and Martinez.
"I don't like it here," Espinosa says flatly. "But I like riding for Raul Martinez and Lou O'Brien."
"I give him more shit than anybody at the racetrack," O'Brien says. "He's what you call a natural. The only thing that gets him in trouble is that he's young. The hardest thing in the world is to keep all these guys straight. These kids make too much money right off the bat."
Provided he picks up a few mounts at another track in the off-season, a jockey like Espinosa can earn upward of $150,000 per year. Triple Crown-caliber jocks like Jerry Bailey or Pat Day typically net at least a million dollars annually. Fairmount bottom-feeders such as Renee Torbit, meanwhile, are lucky to notch twenty grand for their efforts, forcing them to scramble for extra cash by offering their services as exercise riders, working horses before dawn under the watchful gazes of their trainers.
Putting aside his affection for Espinosa, O'Brien's Derby Day jest about firing jockey Jesse Wheat -- another of Fairmount's top riders -- would turn out to be more serious than the owner intended. On May 13, O'Brien could be found huffing into his cell phone about how Wheat "hasn't been worth a shit in two weeks" and instructing Ralph Martinez not to give the jock the next ride on a horse he'd just helmed to a disappointing finish.
"We give them two or three shots on a horse," O'Brien says. "If they don't produce, we switch."
Last week, Wheat was no longer riding for O'Brien.
These days O'Brien tries to surround himself with people he cares for. His family is large, boisterous and endowed with a preternatural propensity for frequent get-togethers, which often involve the belting out of favorites on the karaoke machine in the living room of his comfortable Chesterfield home.
But on Tuesdays, in his box, Lou O'Brien can most often be found alone, smoking his Pall Malls and managing his team. Although O'Brien won't say how much he nets from the horse game, he says it's "not a profit center" -- a statement that Tom Lamarra, a disinterested observer, reckons is straight-up.
On the day O'Brien began to sour on Wheat, his trips to the winner's circle were less frequent than on Derby Day. For the dilettante horseplayer or owner, this might prove discouraging. But for O'Brien it's a necessary part of his life's rhythm, a condition of the vows he exchanged with the equine species at the age of eight.
"Horses keep you on an even keel," the owner says. "You don't get too high or down on yourself."
He could go elsewhere and rake in the dough, but he won't. Lou O'Brien, mayor of the Fairmount backstretch, likes the action fine right here.