Proposals for new racetracks draw mixed reactions

July 16, 2021, midnight ·

Lance Morgan of Ho-Chunk Inc.
Lance Morgan of Ho-Chunk Inc. testifies Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Proposals for new horseracing tracks in Nebraska, which could also mean new casinos, drew a mixed reaction at a meeting of the Racing and Gaming Commission Friday.

Horse racing in Nebraska has been a shadow of its former self in recent years. But last November, voters approved legalizing casinos, provided they were located at racetracks. Friday, the Racing and Gaming Commission heard proposals for five new tracks, in Bellevue, York, Norfolk, North Platte, and Gering. Speaking in support of the Bellevue proposal, John Hassett, who’s run keno operations there for 20 years, emphasized the horseracing aspect of the proposal.

“The only way I’m interested in this project is if it’s a racetrack with a casino, and not vice-versa. I think it’d be a shame to see what happened to the dog track in Iowa happen here in Nebraska,” Hassett said.

The Bluffs Run dog track in Council Bluffs, opened in the 1980s, closed in 2015 in the face of expanded competition from casinos.

The proposal for a new track in Bellevue was opposed by Lance Morgan of Ho-Chunk Inc., the Winnebago economic development corporation that spearheaded last year’s casino ballot initiative.

Morgan, whose organization is poised to run casinos in Omaha, Lincoln and South Sioux City, said the Bellevue proposal would backfire by diluting the market just when casinos are ready to help revive horseracing in Nebraska.

“If we expand the horsetracks and allow gaming in a non-strategic way, then we risk clipping that nascent, reemergent (development) right before it even happens,” Morgan said.

Racing and Gaming Commission Chairman Dennis Lee said new subcommittees of the commission will now evaluate proposals and make recommendations. Lee said he has no idea of how long that will take.