Shipping Blues

Fairmount Park's owner can't squander his prize filly's talent on home turf

The best local athlete you've never heard of is a four-year-old girl who weighs 1,000 pounds.

"She's not a people person," says her trainer, 45-year-old Jimmy Zook, noting that his charge can, at times, be about as personable as Barry Bonds addressing a group of reporters after going hitless in a San Francisco Giants loss.

Of course, Bonds is human, and Zook's trainee is a Thoroughbred. Wildwood Royal, a lissome chestnut filly, is the pride of Zook's Fairmount Park barn and just might be the best female racehorse to be stabled on the Collinsville backstretch in the past quarter-century, if not ever. Purchased at auction for $12,000 as a yearling in 2001, the filly has so far racked up $338,250 in career earnings.

Pony up: In search of greener purses, trainer Jimmy 
Zook takes star filly Wildwood Royal's show on the 
Jennifer Silverberg
Pony up: In search of greener purses, trainer Jimmy Zook takes star filly Wildwood Royal's show on the road.

As Zook speaks he's headed east on Interstate 64, away from the Friday-night sunset, with Wildwood Royal ensconced in a trailer fastened to the rear of his white Dodge pickup. The filly is set to run in the next afternoon's Dade Turf Classic at Ellis Park in Henderson, Kentucky, an Evansville suburb just south of the Indiana border. After a standout three-year-old campaign, she has won four of her eight 2004 starts, including a victory in the $122,000 Iowa Distaff on July 3 at Prairie Meadows racecourse in Altoona. A frontrunner in the mold of 2004 Kentucky Derby runner-up Lion Heart, Wildwood Royal led the Gardenia Handicap at Ellis Park on August 7, only to fade to fourth place. Had she won that race, Zook likely would have entered her in the October 30 Breeders' Cup, horse racing's equivalent to the Olympic track-and-field finals.

Yet aside from the smattering of spectators who caught Wildwood Royal's lone Fairmount race this year -- a six-furlong romp on May 1 that she won by eleven and three-quarters lengths -- hardly anyone in the St. Louis area is aware of the filly's existence. Not even the best of Fairmount's races offer much incentive in the way of purse money, so in order to maximize Wildwood Royal's earning potential, Zook and his boss, 70-year-old Fairmount Park owner and former Ralston Purina CEO William Stiritz, are compelled to hit the road for greener financial pastures.

Attendance for Fairmount's 2004 meet, which ends this Saturday, September 18, is projected to exceed last year's by almost 10 percent, according to Kevin Kious, an Illinois state auditor assigned to monitor Fairmount's financials. At the same time, however, the average live handle -- the amount bet on Fairmount's races by those who come to the track -- is expected to remain stagnant or drop slightly compared to last year, Kious says.

That's not good news for local Thoroughbred owners and trainers trying to make a go of it at Fairmount Park. The handle -- wagered live at Fairmount and via simulcasts at other tracks -- is what determines purse size. The bigger the purses, the more attractive the track is to horsemen. More horses mean better-quality racing and, in turn, a more attractive gambling proposition for bettors.

Fairmount management, meanwhile, appears determined to elevate the track's bottom line by trying to attract bigger -- and younger -- crowds with a nightly lure of plentiful food, cheap beer and live rock music.

For five weeks each year, beginning with the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May and ending with the Belmont Stakes, horse racing takes center stage in the American sporting consciousness. And then it vanishes from popular culture's fickle radar.

It wasn't always that way.

"In my generation, racing was a mainstream enough game that fathers would take their sons to the track," says Andrew Beyer, longtime racing columnist for the Washington Post. "For plenty of us, it took hold. Now it's a lot easier for people to go through life without ever seeing a racetrack."

Is it possible to parlay the annual Triple Crown magic into sustained enthusiasm for live local racing?

"Horse racing has become much more oriented toward big events, and the American public loves big events," Beyer says. "If you've got 100,000 people going somewhere, everyone wants to squeeze in and be the 100,001st. But if you have a couple thousand people at a track on a Thursday people don't want to go, because it's dead. What a lot of tracks are doing to fight this trend is to create special events, like packaging five stakes races in a day. But the Triple Crown races you really can't replicate."

Undeniably, the explosion of casino gambling has made matters worse for Fairmount.

"It was clear that the casinos had taken a huge share of the track's business," says the track's spokesman, John Sloane, referring to a 1996 strategic assessment that marked the beginning of his relationship with Fairmount Park. (Sloane is also the spokesman for the President Casino in St. Louis.) "It was also clear that Fairmount could no longer be promoted primarily as a place to make a bet. We had to essentially reposition Fairmount as a sports venue, an entertainment venue, a family venue, a date venue and a dining venue -- in short, everything the casinos are not."

Greg Smith, the track's advertising and marketing director, acknowledges the impact of riverboat casinos, but he sees his product as more directly positioned against major league sports than against slot levers and the ace of spades. And he bets on it, focusing his advertising buys on St. Louis Cardinals telecasts (as well as the Riverfront Times).

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