Nebraska rushes to construct horse tracks regardless of few followers

A jockey and handler trip their horses down the monitor between races at Fonner Park in Grand Island, Nebraska. Horse tracks have been struggling for many years, however after Nebraska legalized on line casino playing on the state’s six licensed amenities, there’s all of a sudden a variety of curiosity in them and a few communities wish to construct their very own. (AP Photograph/Grant Schulte)

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (AP) — 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.

All of the sudden, 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.

“Impulsively you could have a bunch of communities who do not give a darn about horses saying, ‘Hey, we love horses!'” mentioned Pat Loontjer, director of the anti-casino group Playing with the Good Life.

Certainly, 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, persons are being given one thing they do not need — extra racing — at a price of untold hundreds of thousands. And plenty of operators that present on line casino video games may very well be excluded from the motion.

Forty six states have both business or Native American casinos, producing greater than $30 billion in annual income. However 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 received approval in 2020 of poll initiatives legalizing personal playing. However they added the quirk that casinos may solely open at spots with state-sanctioned horse tracks. All of the sudden, the most well liked actual property within the state is on the six qualifying tracks, 4 of which now supply just one stay race a 12 months. 5 different Nebraska cities even have pitched plans for brand spanking 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 nearly 40% within the final 20 years. Omaha’s once-popular Ak-Sar-Ben (“Nebraska” spelled backwards) racetrack closed in 1995. Provided that, proposals for practically a dozen tracks have aggravated even some racing supporters.

“They may have carried out this 5 years in the past, however that they had zero curiosity,” mentioned Lynne McNally, government director of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protecting Affiliation, which owns Omaha’s solely licensed monitor. “They could not care much less about racing.”

So many teams have proposed tracks in Nebraska that legislators authorised a moratorium on new developments till research decide what number of tracks may fairly function. Two proposals unveiled to this point every would 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 opponents.

Ho-Chunk, a Nebraska-based offshoot of the Winnebago Tribe, lower a take care of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protecting Affiliation to share proceeds from a brand new on line casino opening on the affiliation’s licensed tracks in Omaha and Lincoln. In the meantime, on line casino operators with out tracks shall be frozen out.

“If we’ll spend that cash” on the poll initiative, “we wish to be the entity that is most probably to have casinos,” mentioned Morgan.

Nebraska is considered one of simply 4 states which have legally tied casinos to horse racing tracks, mentioned Christopher Browne, a spokesman for the American Gaming Affiliation. Different states connected totally different circumstances, similar to working on riverboats, however most have been ultimately lifted. The Nebraska measure is enshrined within the state structure so adjustments can be tough.

Some who elevate and race horses in Nebraska mentioned they hope casinos can convey bigger crowds again to their sport.

“With out the on line casino gaming, I do not know if we may have survived for much longer,” mentioned Garald “Wally” Wollesen, a racehorse proprietor.

Chris Kotulak, the CEO of Fonner Park in Grand Island, mentioned his monitor manages to carry 40 race days over 4 months by providing extra “minor league” races with modest purses in comparison with these in different states.

However Kotulak mentioned he is frightened there will not be sufficient staff if extra tracks supply races.

“We do not have sufficient infrastructure proper now,” he mentioned. “To assume that we will have half a dozen extra race tracks, and even two extra … the place are these folks going to come back from?”

Something that helps the game is OK with Jay Helzer, who sat by himself and watched the races on a cold day not too long ago in principally empty bleachers at Fonner Park. Helzer, 76, mentioned he supported the 2020 poll measure.

“It is positive not going to harm something,” Helzer mentioned, gesturing to rows of open seats throughout him. “Right here we’re, a Friday afternoon, and there is hardly anybody right here.”

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