GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (AP) — Horse racing takes place regularly at just two locations in Nebraska, and the tracks at Grand Island and Columbus are generally fairly quiet, aside from the rumble of Thoroughbreds racing past half-empty grandstands.
Suddenly, however, communities across the state are clamoring to revive mothballed trails and build new ones.
Why this renewed interest in a sport that for decades faded across the country? In a word, casinos.
“All of a sudden you have a bunch of communities that don’t care about horses saying, ‘Hey, we love horses! “,” said Pat Loontjer, director of anti-casino group Gambling with the Good Life.
Indeed, the game can take a circuitous route when it finally breaks into a market from which it has been excluded. In Nebraska, to get the gaming options they want, people are getting something they don’t want – more races – at the cost of untold millions. And many operators who offer casino games could be left out of the action.
Forty-six states have commercial or Native American casinos, generating more than $30 billion in annual revenue. But Nebraska has only five tiny tribal casinos in isolated areas, and gambling supporters have complained for years about all the tax revenue lost as players from the Omaha area cross the Missouri River to gamble in the neighboring Iowa. After repeated failures in the Nebraska Legislature, supporters won approval in 2020 for ballot initiatives legalizing private gambling. But they added the quirk that casinos could only open in places with state-approved horse tracks. Suddenly, the hottest real estate in the state is at the six qualifying tracks, four of which now offer only one live race per year. Five other cities in Nebraska have also launched plans for new equestrian trails.
For an industry that for years has struggled to generate interest, the sudden adoption of the sport has raised many concerns and more serious worries about even finding enough jockeys, practice riders and veterinarians to organize races, regardless of whether spectators will actually show up.
Nationally, the sport has been in decline for decades. The number of race days has dropped nearly 40% over the past 20 years. Omaha’s once-popular Ak-Sar-Ben (“Nebraska” spelled backwards) racetrack closed in 1995. Given this, proposals for nearly a dozen tracks have annoyed even some racing fans.
“They could have done it five years ago, but they had no interest,” said Lynne McNally, executive director of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which owns Omaha’s only licensed track. “They don’t care about racing.”
So many groups have proposed tracks in Nebraska that lawmakers have approved a moratorium on new developments until studies determine how many tracks could reasonably work. Two proposals unveiled so far would each spend $220 million to update and improve a little-used runway and add a casino and hotel.
Lance Morgan, whose company Ho-Chunk Inc. spent $7.5 million to fund the initiative campaign, acknowledged that the track requirement was partly included to fend off competitors.
Ho-Chunk, a Nebraska-based offshoot of the Winnebago Tribe, has entered into an agreement with the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association to share proceeds from the opening of a new casino at the association’s licensed tracks in Omaha. and Lincoln. During this time, casino operators without a track will be excluded.
“If we’re going to spend that money” on the ballot initiative, “we want to be the most likely entity to have casinos,” Morgan said.
Nebraska is one of four states that have legally tied casinos to racetracks, said American Gaming Association spokesman Christopher Browne. Other states imposed different conditions, such as operating river boats, but most were eventually lifted. Nebraska’s measure is enshrined in the state constitution, so changes would be difficult.
Some who breed and race horses in Nebraska said they hope casinos can bring bigger crowds back to their sport.
“Without casino games, I don’t know if we could have survived much longer,” said racehorse owner Garald “Wally” Wollesen.
Chris Kotulak, CEO of Fonner Park on Grand Island, said his track manages to hold 40 days of racing over four months by offering more “minor league” races with modest purses compared to those in other states.
But Kotulak said he feared there wouldn’t be enough workers if more tracks offered racing.
“We don’t have enough infrastructure right now,” he said. “To think we can have half a dozen more race tracks, maybe two more… where are these people going to come from?”
Anything to help the sport is OK with Jay Helzer, who sat by himself and watched the races on a chilly day recently from mostly empty stands at Fonner Park. Helzer, 76, said he supported the 2020 ballot measure.
“It certainly won’t hurt,” Helzer said, gesturing to the empty rows of seats all around him. “We are here on a Friday afternoon, and there is hardly anyone here.”