Sports

Nebraska rushes to construct horse tracks regardless of few followers


GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (AP) — Horse races are commonly 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’s been shut out. In Nebraska, to get gaming choices they need, persons are being given one thing they don’t need — extra racing — at a value of untold thousands and thousands. And many operators that present on line casino video games may very well 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 received approval in 2020 of poll initiatives legalizing personal playing. But they added the quirk that casinos may solely open at spots with state-sanctioned horse tracks. Suddenly, the most well liked actual property within the state is on the six qualifying tracks, 4 of which now supply just one reside race a 12 months. 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 truly 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. Given that, proposals for almost 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, government director of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which owns Omaha’s solely licensed observe. “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 may moderately function. Two proposals unveiled to this point would every spend $220 million to replace and enhance a little-used observe and add a on line casino and resort.

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

Ho-Chunk, a Nebraska-based offshoot of the Winnebago Tribe, minimize a take care of 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 can be frozen out.

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

Nebraska is certainly one of simply 4 states which have legally tied casinos to horse racing tracks, stated Christopher Browne, a spokesman for the American Gaming Association. Other states hooked up completely different situations, reminiscent of working on riverboats, however most had been finally lifted. The Nebraska measure is enshrined within the state structure so adjustments can be troublesome.

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

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

Chris Kotulak, the CEO of Fonner Park in Grand Island, stated his observe 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.

But Kotulak stated he’s anxious there received’t be sufficient employees if extra tracks supply races.

“We don’t have enough infrastructure right now,” he stated. “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 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, stated he supported the 2020 poll measure.

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

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

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