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Nebraska rushes to construct horse tracks regardless of few followers


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GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Horse races are usually held in solely two spots in Nebraska, and the tracks in Grand Island and Columbus are often fairly quiet aside from the rumble of thoroughbreds that stomp previous the half-empty grandstands.

Suddenly, although, communities all through the state are clamoring to revive mothballed tracks and construct new ones.

Why the surge in curiosity in a sport that for many years has waned all through the nation?

In a phrase, casinos.

“All of a sudden you have a bunch of communities who don’t give a darn about horses saying, ‘Hey, we love horses!’” stated Pat Loontjer, director of the anti-casino group Gambling with the Good Life.

Indeed, playing can take a circuitous route when it lastly breaks right into a market from which it has been shut out. In Nebraska, to get gaming choices they need, individuals are being given one thing they do not need — extra racing — at a price of untold tens of millions. And many operators that present on line casino video games might be excluded from the motion.

Forty six states have both industrial or Native American casinos, producing greater than $30 billion in annual income. But Nebraska has solely 5 tiny tribal casinos in remoted areas, and playing proponents have complained for years about all of the tax income misplaced as Omaha-area gamblers pour throughout the Missouri River to gamble in neighboring Iowa.

After repeated failures within the Nebraska Legislature, backers gained approval in 2020 of poll initiatives legalizing personal playing. But they added the quirk that casinos might solely open at spots with state-sanctioned horse tracks. Suddenly, the most popular actual property within the state is on the six qualifying tracks, 4 of which now supply just one reside race a yr. Five different Nebraska cities even have pitched plans for brand new horse tracks.

For an trade that for years has struggled to draw any curiosity, the sudden embrace of the game has led to loads of eye-rolling and extra severe considerations about even discovering sufficient jockeys, train riders and veterinarians to carry races, by no means thoughts whether or not spectators will really present up.

Nationally, the game has been in decline for many years. The variety of race days has fallen by virtually 40% within the final 20 years. Omaha’s once-popular Ak-Sar-Ben (“Nebraska” spelled backwards) racetrack closed in 1995. Given that, proposals for practically a dozen tracks has irritated even some racing supporters.

“They could have done this five years ago, but they had zero interest,” stated Lynne McNally, govt director of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which owns Omaha’s solely licensed monitor. “They couldn’t care less about racing.”

So many teams have proposed tracks in Nebraska that legislators authorized a moratorium on new developments till research decide what number of tracks might fairly function. Two proposals unveiled to date would every spend $220 million to replace and enhance a little-used monitor and add a on line casino and lodge.

Lance Morgan, whose firm Ho-Chunk Inc., spent $7.5 million to bankroll the initiative marketing campaign, acknowledged the monitor requirement was included partially to fend off rivals.

Ho-Chunk, a Nebraska-based offshoot of the Winnebago Tribe, minimize a cope with the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, to share proceeds from a brand new on line casino opening on the affiliation’s licensed tracks in Omaha and Lincoln. Meanwhile, on line casino operators with out tracks will probably be frozen out.

“If we’re going to spend that money” on the ballot initiative, “we want to be the entity that’s most likely to have casinos,” stated Morgan.

Nebraska is one of just four states that have legally tied casinos to horse racing tracks, said Christopher Browne, a spokesman for the American Gaming Association. Other states attached different conditions, such as operating on riverboats, but most were eventually lifted. The Nebraska measure is enshrined in the state constitution so changes would be difficult.

Some who raise and race horses in Nebraska said they hope casinos can bring larger crowds back to their sport.

“Without the casino gaming, I don’t know if we could have survived much longer,” said Garald “Wally” Wollesen, a racehorse owner.

Chris Kotulak, the CEO of Fonner Park in Grand Island, said his track manages to hold 40 race days over four months by offering more “minor league” races with modest purses compared to those in other states.

But Kotulak said he’s worried there won’t be enough workers if more tracks offer races.

“We don’t have enough infrastructure right now,” he said. “To think that we can have half a dozen more race tracks, or even two more … where are these people going to come from?”

Anything that helps the sport is OK with Jay Helzer, who sat by himself and watched the races on a chilly day recently in mostly empty bleachers at Fonner Park. Helzer, 76, said he supported the 2020 ballot measure.

“It’s sure not going to hurt anything,” Helzer said, gesturing to rows of open seats all around him. “Here we are, a Friday afternoon, and there’s hardly anybody here.”


Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

Nebraska rushes to construct horse tracks regardless of few followers.
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