Friday, October 18, 1996
Fairmount draws Stiritz, other execs who race horses
But horses may not be enough to keep racetrack afloat
St. Louis Business Journal – by Josh Gotthelf
Dressed in khakis and a safari hat and wielding a pair of binoculars, William Stiritz was recently spotted milling about the infield at Fairmount Park in Collinsville, Ill.
Stiritz, Ralston Purina’s chairman and chief executive, was there to cheer on one of the nearly dozen horses he owns. He is among several local businesspeople who get their kicks out of owning race horses. And racing horses is no cheap thrill.
Lou O’Brien, president of O’Brien & Associates food brokerage, has 35 horses — many of which race at Fairmount. He said this past thoroughbred season was the first one in 20 years where he hasn’t lost money. Basking in the glow of his break-even season, O’Brien called owning and racing horses a “labor of love.”
“It’s all worth it when you’re standing in the winner’s circle,” he said. “My horses won 62 races this year, and I was just as excited for the last one as I was the first.”
O’Brien, 60, keeps his horses at his training center, which is located just down the road from Fairmount.
Other local horse owners include Cardinals trainer Gene Gieselmann, Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon, William Human Jr., chairman of Ziercher & Hocker law firm in Clayton and Beyers Lumber Co.’s Edward Beyers.
Brian Zander, general manager at Fairmount, said the costs associated with owning and racing a horse run about $10,000 a year.
“And not a great percentage of horses will make back that $10,000,” he said “Maybe 10 percent of all owners make money.”
In 1986, tax laws changed to allow less leniency for horse owners.
“I have to run my horses like a business because of the IRS,” Human said . “But I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it.”
Human, who is often on hand at Fairmount when one of his eight horses is competing, said he broke even this year at the track.
But Human, O’Brien, Stiritz and other horse lovers may have to find a new hobby, according to race track officials.
Fairmount and other tracks around the country say they are struggling with the pressures exerted on them by the growing number of riverboat casinos. At Fairmount, both attendance and handle — the term used in racing to refer to the amount the track takes after state wagering taxes are applied — have dropped each of the last three years.
According to the Illinois Racing Board, 1993 attendance at Fairmount, the only track serving the St. Louis metropolitan area, was 368,293, and the handle was $50.3 million. In 1995 attendance was 280,899, while the handle fell to $46.9 million.
“I don’t think there’s any question that ultimately we will have to expand our gaming product in order to thrive,” Zander said.
Zander and track officials around the country have been lobbying for a change in the law to allow slot machines at their facilities. Parimutuel wagering, which includes betting on both horses and dogs, now exists in 32 states. Only two of those tracks are allowed to have slot machines.
In Louisiana, tracks are allowed to house video poker machines. And in California, many tracks have added card clubs where visitors can play poker (the house takes a cut of every pot).
Zander said slots are his goal, but either video poker or card clubs would be better than nothing. And with the $286 million Riverport Casino Center scheduled to open in March, competition for the gaming dollar will heat up.
“Something has to happen within the next year, or we will really suffer,” Zander said.