One-Track Mind

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

Kentucky Derby Day can make even the most backwater racetrack seem like a mint '57 Chevy. The Derby is the first -- and arguably most unpredictable -- leg of a Triple Crown marathon for three-year-old horses that also comprises the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore and the Belmont Stakes in New York. The three races are run within the space of just over a month in late spring, giving novice Thoroughbred fans worldwide a fleeting glimpse of the sport's gilded age, long since passed. Derby Day is Fairmount Park's biggest day of the year, and on this first Saturday in May, a postcard-perfect sunny 65 degrees all but guarantees a crowd in excess of 11,000 at the hardscrabble Collinsville track.

This year, Fairmount-based owner Lou O'Brien's money is on the Bobby Frankel-trained Empire Maker, by far the classiest horse in the field. But as O'Brien will tell you, the best horse doesn't always win the Derby.

"Derby Day is like New Year's Eve," says O'Brien, seated in his private box on the glass-encased mezzanine level of Fairmount's grandstand. "It's amateur day. That's why if you know what you're doing, you can get a real nice price on a horse."

Jennifer Silverberg
And they're off!
Jennifer Silverberg
And they're off!
O’Brien’s grandson Timmy has been handicapping horses since he was four years old.
Jennifer Silverberg
O’Brien’s grandson Timmy has been handicapping horses since he was four years old.
Lois and Lou O’Brien, who married at sixteen, are about to celebrate their 50th anniversary.
Jennifer Silverberg
Lois and Lou O’Brien, who married at sixteen, are about to celebrate their 50th anniversary.
Father-and-son training tandem Raul and Ralph (left) Martinez have an exclusive working relationship with O’Brien.
Jennifer Silverberg
Father-and-son training tandem Raul and Ralph (left) Martinez have an exclusive working relationship with O’Brien.
Jockeys’ agent Rod Peck considers top-flight horse bettors to be on par with nuclear physicists.
Jennifer Silverberg
Jockeys’ agent Rod Peck considers top-flight horse bettors to be on par with nuclear physicists.
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

From the paunch that overlaps his casually classy khakis to his slicked-back silver hair and diamond-encrusted horseshoe pinkie ring, O'Brien looks like a man who has lived every minute times two of his 66 years. Friends and associates attribute his physique and trademark gravelly voice to his dogged dedication to Pall Mall cigarette consumption and a life of leisure.

"I think he'd feel real bad if he created the demise of Philip Morris," quips longtime friend and onetime rival horse owner Merwyn Sher. "I think he has stock in cigarette companies."

Today O'Brien is accompanied by his grandson Timmy O'Brien, a 23-year-old financial analyst who has been going to the track with his grandfather since the age of four. O'Brien used to attend all of his horses' races at Fairmount, night or day. These days he typically cedes his box to his grandson at night; during races in which O'Brien has entries, Timmy assiduously communicates by cell phone, explaining why a particular animal thrived or gave way in the homestretch.

"He calls Timmy his agent," O'Brien's wife, Lois, explains. "He used to think the horses couldn't win without him there. He doesn't really care if he's over there now or not."

O'Brien's accountant, Rick Rudolph, recalls one instance when he caught tears of joy welling up in the owner's eyes after I'm a Timmy Too, a horse he named after his grandson, won a race. When pressed by Rudolph for an explanation, O'Brien said it was just dust.

On their way down to the paddock to visit their first entry of the day, O'Brien and Timmy stop to buy a little merchandise from the Paradise Valley Pony Club, which is raising money to find nonracing careers for retired racehorses. There was a time, according to Lois O'Brien, when her husband would buy old horses and put them out to pasture on his farm just to save them from a likely trip to the slaughterhouse. Today's $15 act of charity represents a solid middle ground, a tempering of O'Brien's four-hanky emotional streak with his still-emerging intellectual grasp of racing's big picture.

O'Brien and Timmy saunter over to the stall where O'Brien's father-son trainer tandem, Raul and Ralph Martinez, are awaiting Bonjoiu, a four-year-old maiden who has finished among the top three in six of eight lifetime starts but has yet to notch a win. The men watch as a groom guides the horse into his stall to be saddled. Eight minutes before post time, diminutive, freckle-faced jockey Jesse Wheat Jr. is hoisted aboard and takes the reins in the green-and-white silks that are the signature of Shamrock Meadows Stable.

The two O'Briens retreat to their box, where they watch Wheat and Bonjoiu take third place in the five-furlong race after swinging too far wide entering the stretch. Finishing third -- or "showing," in horse parlance -- is like kissing your sister, offers O'Brien, half-seriously threatening to fire Wheat for the gaffe.

"I think I fired you as my grandson once," he jokes, turning to Timmy.

By Derby Day's end, an unheralded horse named Funny Cide has toppled Empire Maker to become the first gelding since 1929 to win the Kentucky Derby en route to a shot at the coveted Triple Crown, which wraps up Saturday, June 7, with the running of the Belmont in New York. O'Brien's horses, meanwhile, have won four of seven races, highlighted by a track record at the rare distance of two furlongs set by a talented but injury-prone eight-year-old warhorse named Glit.

"That was an efficient day," says Timmy.

A similar evaluation could sum up Shamrock Meadows' 2003 campaign thus far -- and, for that matter, the previous two. After a woeful 1999 season at the Collinsville track, O'Brien and the Martinezes got serious, so serious that in 2001 Lou O'Brien quietly emerged as the third-winningest racehorse owner in all of the United States. The Martinezes posted the highest winning percentage among trainers that year -- a 38 percent clip -- and ranked ninth in total wins. In 2002 O'Brien was fifth in total wins nationwide, and again in 2003, Shamrock Meadows occupies a slot near the top of the rankings.

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.

"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.

"Few horses are going to ship in to Fairmount to run for the money," Lamarra continues. "When Ellis Park in [Henderson] Kentucky opens, horses ship out of Fairmount to run there."

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."

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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