After Decades of Decline, Nebraska Horse Racing Depending on 'Racinos' for Revival
By William Padmore, Host/Reporter Nebraska Public Media
April 1, 2022, 6 a.m. ·
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It’s off to the races at Fonner Park in Grand Island. Spectators on the ground and in grandstands cheer and throw their hands up in frustration, as nine thoroughbreds and their jockeys blur past in a swoosh of color and sound, trying to outpace the other for victory.
And 48 seconds later, the show's over. Jockeys rush to the locker room, horses go back to the stables and patrons hurry to make their next bets – only 20 minutes until the next race.
The action of race day is what hooked Fonner Park CEO Chris Kotulak when he was 16 years old.
“It kind of took the breath out of me when I saw It,” he said. “I thought, ‘What did I just see?’”
The year was 1979. The location: Aksarben racetrack in Omaha. This was a time when horserace betting could draw thousands of spectators, many visiting from out of state. Kotulak said he was blown away.
“When the horses came to town and left, my mother had talked enough sense into me to say: ‘You are going to stay right here and you're going to finish your schooling,'” Kotulak said with a laugh.
Since the 1980s, the sport has lost popularity in the state and country. Nationally, over the past five years, the industry shrunk by an average of 8.4% – with profits declining by 24%.
In Nebraska, the state has gone from around 100 thoroughbred race days in 2001 to half that by 2021. Aksarben, the one-time crown jewel of Nebraska racing, was demolished in 2005. Now, the area it’s a mixture of businesses and apartments.
Of the six remaining licensed horse racetracks in Nebraska, Fonner Park is by far the largest. Built in 1954, it has towering grandstands, a multipurpose area and a race track. Despite horseracing’s decline, Kotulak said Fonner still sells out regularly.
The track is also showing its age. One example is a wide section of those lauded grandstands with bright red furniture.
“This thing has not been…I won't say improved upon,” Kotulak said, “But the architecture and the design has been unchanged since the late 70s.”
Audio sometimes doesn’t play through speakers when it's supposed to. Some employees work multiple jobs to make up for a lack of staff and some doors need replacing. To make ends meet, the racetrack doubles as an event space, hosting anything from motorcycle shows to sports competitions.
Kotulak blames the decline of state horseracing on casino gambling in neighboring states siphoning potential tourists. But when Nebraska voters approved combined racetrack casinos or “racinos” in 2020, it gave horse track operators, like Kotulak, something they haven’t had in a while: hope.
“We would hope that we would double our purses once we hit our best stride with the casino money, so that's the gold pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Kotulak said.
Exactly how much casinos will add to the racetracks that host them is a closely guarded secret between developers and racetrack license owners. Still, Kotulak is confident the amount he negotiated will be more than enough to give the track a boost.
“When the casinos happen, the money that we can offer for the jockeys, the owners, the breeders and the trainers will all double," he said. Currently, Kotulak pegs the average first-place purse at Fonner at around $6,000.
Marissa Black, a horse trainer at Fonner Park, said purses in Nebraska could be better.
“We’re basically, I hate to say it, we're at the bottom right now,” she said.
Between breeding, training, feeding, transportation and more, horseracing is an expensive undertaking, Black said. So, prize money often determines where horse owners choose to race their horses.
“Even if we have just a little bit of improvement, then you get more enthusiasm from the community and from the horse community, and then it grows," she said.
And it doesn’t stop at the race track. Black said prize money has a trickle-down effect – with everyone involved benefiting. And that includes Nebraska’s agricultural and hospitality industries.
“We have to feed and take care of the horses,” she said. “And then the farmers because the farmers supply the feed and the hay that we use and the shavings that we use for the bedding and everything. We go to restaurants. We go to hotels. We go to bars."
There’s just one thing stopping the casino developers: The rules that would allow for the application of a casino license are still crawling their way through the approval process.
While the state legislature is currently debating on whether new casinos and race tracks should be built, at this point the legislation would not affect existing licensed racetracks like Fonner.
The Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission advanced 67-pages of proposed rules in December. The attorney general has approved the rules, so all that’s left is a signature from the governor and secretary of state.
Garald Wollesen, the president of the horseman's lobbying group – Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association – owns the racetrack license for both the Omaha and Lincoln racetracks. He said he's growing impatient with the pace of the process.
"It's costing the racing industry in Nebraska million dollars a week right now,” Wollesen said. “And the taxpayers who were to benefit from horse racing and casinos...they're the ones that are suffering.”
If the rules aren’t approved soon, he expects the legislature to step up the pressure. In his mind, those rules are a critical step toward improving horseracing in Nebraska.
"Once the casinos are built in Lincoln and Omaha, and with Fonner and in Sioux City and Columbus, we're looking at 90 to 100 days a year – easy,” Wollesen said.
Right now, the industry is required to run 52 days a year in Nebraska.
Kotulak said he doesn’t think the state is purposely slow-walking certification of the rules – at least not yet. But even he admits the waiting game is getting old.
“We did plan that ground would have been broken going back to about Thanksgiving time – or December of 2021. And that has not happened,” Kotulak said. “And we had hoped that okay, well, then maybe we'll break ground by February or March. Well, that hasn't happened. And now, we're just hopeful that it will be operational by the end of the year.”
Kotulak will wait a little longer.