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.
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).
"When the Cardinals are out of town," says Smith, "we do an extra 30 percent in business."
While local horsemen appreciate the larger crowds, if attendance isn't translating to a bigger handle, it isn't doing much to boost their fortunes.
The young folks who are coming to the track "don't have a lot of disposable income yet," says Lanny Brooks, a Collinsville-based horse trainer who serves as executive director of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) at Fairmount. "The other thing is, they don't know how to bet yet. They get intimidated; they're calling the horse by name instead of number [at the betting windows]."
Consequently, says Brooks, "Our live handle is nowhere near commensurate with our attendance, which causes us to have short fields. The horsemen are ready and willing to put out a better product. We just need the money to run for it."
Smith says he doesn't particularly care whether the newcomers flock to the betting windows. "We're not looking for people to place $10, $20 or $30 bets," says Smith. "In fact, I'd prefer they didn't. What you have to do is create a trial where somebody comes once, has a good time, and wants to do it again. In various parts of the track, we're looking to attract a completely different audience. That is the whole thing for rebuilding the fan base of Thoroughbred racing."
Beyer, a longtime vocal advocate of investing in higher purses to upgrade the quality of racing, doesn't entirely fault Fairmount's approach.
"It's a questionable proposition," the sportswriter says. "But I have to applaud tracks that are making the effort to convert new fans. If you've got bands and dollar beers, maybe one out of twenty says, 'Hey, maybe I can make some money at this.' It's a tough thing, but it's worth doing."
Eleven Thoroughbreds have entered the $75,000 Dade Turf Classic for fillies and mares at Ellis Park on September 4. Some $45,000 of the purse money will go to the barn of the victor, another $15,000 to the runner-up. By way of comparison, Fairmount Park's most lucrative race this year featured a $35,000 purse. (Also worthy of note: Fairmount is not equipped with a turf course.)
The track's oddsmaker isn't particularly smitten with Wildwood Royal, pegging the Collinsville invader at 6-1 on the morning line. There's no questioning her speed, but doubt seeps in about the filly's lack of experience on the grass (one victory in two races over the turf), not to mention her seeming aversion to daytime racing: Her four wins in 2004 have all come at night. But by post time for the tenth race, three horses will have scratched, leaving Wildwood Royal as the second favorite, her odds a respectable 7-2.
Jimmy Zook arose at six this morning to hustle to the Ellis backstretch from his room at Henderson's Comfort Inn. Wildwood Royal, he observes, hasn't eaten as much as he'd have liked, but she's "in good flesh" -- which is to say she's got a sufficient amount of meat on her bones. That wasn't the case in Chicago back in November when Zook ran her in the Hawthorne Oaks without adequate rest. She lugged home a disappointing sixth.
At midday, after the track veterinarian administers an injection of the common blood-thinning drug Lasix and a state vet declares Wildwood Royal fit to run (after a 30-second check of her teeth and one fetlock), Zook fills a bucket with soapy water and gives his feisty filly a bath. Then he zips back to his motel room for a quick shower and change of clothes before returning to meet up with Stiritz and his family, who have driven down from St. Louis for the festivities. As post time approaches, a groom steers Wildwood Royal into her designated slot in the paddock, where Zook is giving last-minute instructions to Fairmount-based jockey Danush Sukie. The trainer pats his filly on the behind as she heads off in the direction of the turf course.
"Got to give 'em that good-luck tap on the ass," he says. Superstition having gotten the better of him, Zook opts to remain in the paddock area until after the race.
Stiritz and his entourage take up residence on the grandstand steps near the finish line. They watch as their horse breaks from the gate and immediately takes the lead, as expected. At the halfway point of the mile-and-a-sixteenth route, Wildwood Royal holds a comfortable lead and is running easily. But entering the far turn, two rivals begin to eat away at the margin. Wildwood Royal is able to maintain the lead deep into the homestretch, but five-year-old May Gator ultimately overtakes her and wins by just over a length, at odds of 9-2 and in a meet-best time of 1 minute, 39 seconds. Stiritz, an avid horseback rider who entrusts all of his hundred or so Thoroughbreds to Zook, seems pleased with the outcome.
Back near the paddock, the trainer scrutinizes a replay of the race on a television monitor and engages in a simultaneous self-critique.
"You know what?" he says. "That last workout [on Wednesday at Fairmount] was too damn fast. Maybe it took a little too much out of her."
As Wildwood Royal cools down, Zook soaks pieces of a brown paper bag in a bucket of water. He applies a claylike poultice to all four of the horse's lower legs, wraps them in two layers apiece of plastic wrap and wet paper and tops off each application with a padded cloth wrap.
Finally he guides his filly into its trailer, revs up his Dodge and leaves the track security guard with a tongue-in-cheek adieu:
"I think we'll take our take our ass-kickin' and go on home."