By Dan Caesar
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
October 25, 1999

Thanks to Bob Mirielli who sent me this article.

Gambling probably has been around as long as man has had the brainpower to realize that there was a chance to get something for nothing.

Cavemen likely bet on who could throw a stone the farthest, with the loser having to do some sort of chore. Cro-Magnons may have wagered on which egg would hatch first in a nest.

In America, there are plenty of tales of gambling in the Old West, with the most famous being the story of Wild Bill Hickok meeting his demise in a dispute over a poker hand at Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, S.D. (Where, incidentally, you still can get dealt into a game of seven-card stud because the building has been converted into a legal casino.) In more modern times, the gangster-influenced rise of Las Vegas into gambling's mecca is a spicy saga.

Locally, the stories aren't as colorful, and St. Louis has had only a short history of legalized casino gambling. Old-timers still whisper about clandestine back-room card games and even behind-the-door casino games rolling along in the Metro East of yesteryear.

There is no doubt that St. Louisans liked to risk a buck over the years, whether by legal or illegal means. And that goes back to the earliest days of settlement here.

According to the Encyclopedia of the History of St. Louis, Vol. 3, there was a quarter-mile horse-racing track "on the prairie adjoining the St. Louis settlement in 1767." The races were said to be for amusement only, but it is noted that there were "individual wagers as an incident."

That was just the beginning.

"There is a partial record of a Jockey Club in 1828," the book says. ". . . In 1830, and for some years afterward, races took place on St. Charles Rock Road. . . . In 1848, a new Jockey Club was organized and races were fun on an 80-acre tract on Manchester Road. Among the patrons were Robert E. Lee.

"About 1852 came a popular interest in racing and the fair grounds attracted the best animals in the country. The interest of horsemen throughout the Mississippi Valley was centered in these annual exhibitions until the (Civil) war broke out, then languished for a time and was renewed in 1866, continuing for some years with unabated spirit, until several racing clubs came into being."

Among those was the Laclede Race Track Association, which had a short run.

"In 1869 the association disbanded, the track grounds being opened as an addition to St. Louis called McRee City (in the area bounded by Cabanne Avenue,

Manchester Road and McRee and Chouteau avenues).

"In 1877 the St. Louis Jockey Club was incorporated. . . . A full mile track was laid out and a grandstand was erected to seat 6,000 people, the opening took place July 4, 1877.

"The South Side Race Track Association was organized in 1894, and opened a course on Russell and Missouri avenues." It had a successful run "until the property was destroyed by the cyclone of 1896, and the club made no attempt to replace it."

In more modern times, local horse racing flourished on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River.

Fairmount Park opened in Collinsville in 1925, and the first running of Fairmount Derby took place the next year. The New York Times even described Haste's victory.

In 1947, Fairmount became the only one-mile racetrack in the world with night lighting. People reportedly came "from Europe and Australia to see the spectacle."

The following year, Fairmount began harness racing and conducted what was said to be the first night harness race over a mile track in the United States.

Betting on the horses became such a popular pastime that a second track, Cahokia Downs, opened in 1954.

But racing's hold gradually declined. Cahokia Downs closed in 1979 and Fairmount announced this year that it will not run harness racing after the current meet winds up on New Year's Eve, ending a 52-year run. Brian Zander, the track's general manager, is putting all his efforts into trying to revive thoroughbred racing in this era of competition from legalized casino gambling, which has siphoned off many of the gambling dollars that Fairmount reaped.

That new era dawned in September 1991, when the Alton Belle opened on a small boat on the Mississippi River. Eager gamblers paid up to $19.95 for the "privilege" of trying to overcome the odds favoring the house to make a buck. Despite the tariff, the Belle frequently sold out as the only game in town.

The Belle had the market to itself until June 1993, when the Casino Queen opened in East St. Louis across the Mississippi from the Arch. That came a month after the Belle moved its operations to a much more spacious vessel.

The gambling market hit the jackpot in May 1994, when casino gambling was legalized in Missouri. The President Casino on the Admiral opened directly across from the Queen and Station Casino turned on its slots in St. Charles.

Two more casinos, Harrah's and Players Island, opened in Maryland Heights in March 1997, giving the market its current array of six casinos.

But until this summer, local gamblers had faced many restrictions that aren't imposed on those rolling the dice in almost any other casinos in the world. Area casinos had been required to permit admission only during designated "boarding times," even when the boats did not cruise. Missouri casinos faced an even more stringent requirement: They couldn't allow patrons to lose more than $500 during any two-hour period.

Although the loss limit remains in Missouri, customers now are free to come and go as they please in both states. In addition, all area casinos except the Admiral have dropped their admission fees. And many observers believe the Missouri loss limit will go the way of the covered wagon before long.


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