GRAND ISLAND, Neb. -- Horse races are regularly held in only two spots in Nebraska, and the tracks in Grand Island and Columbus are usually pretty quiet apart from the rumble of thoroughbreds that stomp past the half-empty grandstands.
Suddenly, though, communities throughout the state are clamoring to revive mothballed tracks and build new ones.
Why the surge in interest in a sport that for decades has waned throughout the country?
In a word, casinos.
“All of a sudden you have a bunch of communities who don’t give a darn about horses saying, ‘Hey, we love horses!’” said Pat Loontjer, director of the anti-casino group Gambling with the Good Life.
Indeed, gambling can take a circuitous route when it finally breaks into a market from which it's been shut out. In Nebraska, to get gaming options they want, people are being given something they don't want — more racing — at a cost of untold millions. And many operators that provide casino games could be excluded from the action.
Forty six states have either 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 proponents have complained for years about all the tax revenue lost as Omaha-area gamblers pour across the Missouri River to gamble in neighboring Iowa.
After repeated failures in the Nebraska Legislature, backers won approval in 2020 of ballot initiatives legalizing private gambling. But they added the quirk that casinos could only open at spots with state-sanctioned 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 a year. Five other Nebraska cities also have pitched plans for new horse tracks.
For an industry that for years has struggled to attract any interest, the sudden embrace of the sport has led to plenty of eye-rolling and more serious concerns about even finding enough jockeys, exercise riders and veterinarians to hold races, never mind whether spectators will actually show up.
Nationally, the sport has been in decline for decades. The number of race days has fallen by almost 40% in the last 20 years. Omaha's once-popular Ak-Sar-Ben (“Nebraska” spelled backwards) racetrack closed in 1995. Given that, proposals for nearly a dozen tracks has annoyed even some racing supporters.
“They could have done this five years ago, but they had zero interest,” 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 legislators approved a moratorium on new developments until studies determine how many tracks could reasonably operate. Two proposals unveiled so far would each spend $220 million to update and improve a little-used track and add a casino and hotel.
Lance Morgan, whose company Ho-Chunk Inc., spent $7.5 million to bankroll the initiative campaign, acknowledged the track requirement was included in part to fend off competitors.
Ho-Chunk, a Nebraska-based offshoot of the Winnebago Tribe, cut a deal with the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, to share proceeds from a new casino opening at the association's licensed tracks in Omaha and Lincoln. Meanwhile, casino operators without tracks will 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,” said 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