Fonner Park had a full house Sunday as thousands gathered for a day at the horse track. Along with the thoroughbred horses, what brought a lot of families to the track were races featuring camels and ostriches.
It was for a good cause as the proceeds from the camel and ostrich races went to nine local Grand Island charities.
Behind the idea of the Dinsdale Dashers of the Desert Camel and Ostrich Races was Chris Kotulak, Fonner Park chief operating officer.
Kotulak said when he worked at Remington Park in Oklahoma for seven years, each year they would bring the Joe Hedrick Exotic Animal Races to the track. It was “always the biggest day of the year.”
“I knew this would be a success, but for it to be a success, we had to be prepared for it on our end,” Kotulak said.
And prepared they were as it was standing room only at the track and parking was at a premium with thousands taking advantage of gorgeous spring weather to see the exotic animal racing on Fonner’s dirt track.
“I expected this crowd,” he said.
Each exotic animal race was a half-furlong dash. In between the Sunday horse races, the camels raced and then the ostriches. There were four camels and five ostriches. Each camel and ostrich had a local sponsor and a local charity.
The camel sponsors were KSNB Local 4, with the Alzheimer Association of Nebraska as the benefiting charity; Greenline Equipment, whose charity was Central Nebraska Child Advocacy; NTV, with the benefiting charity being Heartland CASA; and The Grand Island Independent, with Grand Island Habitat for Humanity as the benefiting charity.
The riders were Jory Pflasterer, AJ Rerucha, Ty Johnson, and Dale Curran.
The five ostrich sponsors were KRGI, ESPN Radio, 107.7 The Island, Tommy Gunz, and Dinsdaleauto.com. The benefiting charities were Big Brothers Big Sisters, Central Nebraska Humane Society, Hope Harbor, Grand Island Police Department and Goodwill Industries of Nebraska.
Thoroughbred jockeys rode the ostriches because of weight restrictions. The riders were Jake Olesiak, Dakota Wood, Mike Luark, Frank Johnson and Scott Bethke.
Tom Dinsdale Automotive, Greenline Equipment and Tommy Gunz Bristol donated $100 to the charity purses. The charity linked to the winner of each exotic animal race received a $150 donation from its sponsoring business.
Kotulak said one of the ways he knew to make the event a success was to have the exotic animal races benefit local charities and to involve the local media.
It was a win, win situation for the charities. Not only did they get a nice donation from the event, but each of the nine no-profits had a booth in Fonner’s concourse to make the public aware of their purpose. Those booths also sparked the generosity of the Fonner fans as they were digging into their pockets from their winnings at the track to donate to their favorite charities.
“It is a wonderful family time,” said Erin Howe, volunteer coordinator for Heartland CASA, one of the charities benefiting from the event. “It is really exciting. There are so many people here. We are really excited to be here.”
“We want people to know that CASA is made up of volunteers,” Howe said. “We are the voice of children who have been abused and neglected, in the court system.”
When Howe was contacted by Fonner Park about the event, she was worried that she would have to ride a camel.
“I am glad that I dodged that bullet,” she said. “But the great thing about this community is that people are very generous as we have had a lot of people come by and donate money. We are so glad we are a part of this and were invited.”
Another charity participating at the event was Grand Island Habitat for Humanity.
Kathy Woitaszewski, chairwoman of the Habitat for Humanity fundraising committee, said they “jumped at the opportunity” when asked by Fonner Park to participate.
“This is great exposure for Habitat for Humanity,” Woitaszewski said. “Being on the fundraising committee, it is all about raising money for the homes for our families.”
This year, she said, Habitat for Humanity will celebrate its 100th build in Grand Island
“We are having a blast,” Woitaszewski said.
The camels and ostriches arrived at Fonner Park on Thursday, Kotulak said. While the horses had their paddock on the south end of the concourse, the ostriches and camels had their own separate paddock on the north end.
Tending to his critters was Joe Hedrick of Nickerson, Kan., who owns the Exotic Animal Races. Grand Islanders are familiar with Hendrick as he and his exotic animals are at the Nebraska State Fair each year. Hedrick’s petting zoo and pig races are also popular with Nebraska State Fair fans.
Hedrick said this is the first time he has brought the camel and ostrich races to Grand Island.
His camels and ostriches provide popular events across the country that draw huge crowds whenever they are in town.
“This is a great crowd,” Hedrick said of the people on hand for Sunday’s races.
This is Hedrick’s 40th year racing ostriches and camels throughout the United States. Already this year, his show has been in New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Houston.
Fans, such as Evan and Ashley Lewandowski of Kearney and their three daughters, Harper, 10, Willa, 8, and Audrey, 5, were examining the ostriches and camels before race time.
“We have never seen anything like this before,” Ashley said.
All three of the Lewandowskis’ children were looking forward to the races.
“I like the camels,” Harper said. Her sister, Willa, agreed.
And by the size of the crowd Sunday at Fonner Park, the public agreed that it was a good time guaranteed for all.