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Nebraska rushes to build racetracks despite fewer fans

BIG ISLAND, Neb. – Horse racing is a regular occurrence at only two locations in Nebraska, and the tracks in Grand Island and Columbus are usually pretty quiet save for the rumble of thoroughbreds trudging past the half-empty grandstands.

Suddenly, however, communities across the state are clamoring to revitalize mothballed tracks and build new ones.

Why the increased interest in a sport that has been waning across the country for decades?

in a word, casinos.

“All of a sudden there’s a bunch of communities that don’t give a damn about horses and say, ‘Hey, we love horses!'” said Pat Loontjer, director of anti-casino group Gambling with the Good Life.

In fact, gambling can take a detour when it finally enters a market from which it has been locked out. In Nebraska, people are getting something they don’t want – more racing – at a cost of untold millions to get the gaming options they want. And many operators offering casino games could be excluded from the promotion.

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Forty-six states have either commercial or Native American casinos that generate more than $30 billion in annual revenue. But Nebraska only has five tiny tribal casinos in outlying areas, and gambling advocates have complained for years about all the tax revenue lost as Omaha-region gamblers flock across the Missouri River to play in neighboring Iowa.

After repeated failures in the Nebraska Legislature, supporters won approval for voting initiatives to legalize personal gambling in 2020. But they added the quirk that casinos could only open in locations with state-licensed racecourses. Suddenly, the state’s hottest properties are on the six qualifying tracks, four of which now only offer one live race per year. Five other Nebraska cities also have plans for new horse racing tracks.

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For an industry that’s struggled for years to generate interest, the sport’s sudden take-up has prompted much eye-rolling and more serious concerns about whether enough jockeys, practice riders and veterinarians will even be found to hold races, let alone if the spectators doing this will actually show up.

Nationally, the sport has been in decline for decades. The number of race days has decreased by almost 40% in the last 20 years. Omaha’s once popular Ak Sar Ben (Nebraska spelled backwards) race track closed in 1995. Given that, proposals for nearly a dozen tracks have even upset some racing fans.

“They could have done this five years ago, but they weren’t interested,” said Lynne McNally, executive director of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which owns Omaha’s only licensed track. “They couldn’t care less about racing.”

So many groups have proposed tracks in Nebraska that the legislature approved a moratorium on new developments until Studies determine how many tracks could reasonably be operated. Two proposals unveiled so far would each spend $220 million to update and improve a little-used track and add a casino and hotel.

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Lance Morgan, whose company Ho-Chunk Inc. spent $7.5 million to fund the initiative, acknowledged the track requirement was included in part to stave off competitors.

Ho-Chunk, a Nebraska-based offshoot of the Winnebago tribe, has entered into a deal with the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association to share proceeds from the opening of a new casino on the association’s licensed Omaha and Lincoln tracks. Meanwhile, casino operators are frozen without tracks.

“When we spend this money” on the ballot initiative, “we want to be the company that most likely has casinos,” Morgan said.

Nebraska is one of only four states that have legally tied casinos to racetracks, said Christopher Browne, a spokesman for the American Gaming Association. Other states imposed different requirements, such as river barge operations, but most were eventually repealed. Nebraska’s measure is enshrined in the state constitution, so changing it would be difficult.

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

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

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

But Kotulak said he was concerned there wouldn’t be enough workers as more tracks offered racing.

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

Anything that helps the sport is fine for Jay Helzer, who recently sat alone on a chilly day watching the races in the mostly empty grandstands at Fonner Park. Helzer, 76, said he supports the 2020 election measure.

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“I’m sure it won’t hurt,” said Helzer, pointing to the rows of empty seats around him. “Here we are, a Friday afternoon, and there’s hardly anyone here.”

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

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https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/06/17/nebraska-rushes-to-build-horse-tracks-despite-few-fans/ Nebraska rushes to build racetracks despite fewer fans

Sarah Y. Kim

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