It was a strange scene on the apron in front of the Fonner Park track Monday afternoon for the first-race post at 3:30 p.m.
There were about 16 people, mostly trainers and other horse racing workers, on the apron along with the Fonner Park photographer and a videographer.
There were another handful of trainers watching from the balcony outside the executive suite, and a couple of pickups parked on the north side of the apron where those with MBet accounts were allowed to park.
But the public was not allowed into the grandstands because of the coronavirus. In fact the grandstands were completely empty.
And there was Fonner Park CEO Chris Kotulak walking around the apron with both arms spread wide, reminding everyone to watch their “social distance.”
The only thing that seemed normal was the voice of track announcer Steve Anderson booming out from the public address system.
No doubt the 13th day of the 67th year of live horse racing at Fonner Park was like no other — in a number of ways.
That includes the handle. With racing fans watching from all over the United States — including on the TVG Network — Fonner brought in $1,340,047 in handle.
That was an all-time record at Fonner. There were $1.2 million days in 1983 and 1990. The one in 1983 was exclusively bet at Fonner Park, while the one in 1990 included out-of-state wagering.
“Monday, March 23, was a monumental day in the history of Fonner Park,” Kotulak said. “Unfortunately that was not the case for recouping expenses to conduct racing. The horsemen and Fonner Park retain only a tiny sliver of the overall money that’s raised.”
Mark Hibdon, a trainer from Texas who has been a regular at Fonner the last four or five years, said it was a shock to the horsemen when it was announced a week ago that live racing at Fonner was going to cease for an indefinite period of time.
“I know when we heard they were canceling racing, one of your first thoughts is, ‘Uh, how am I gonna feed these horses,”’ Hibdon said. “You know, real fast, what are we going to do, how are we going to take care of them, where are we going to take them? A lot of people don’t have anywhere to go.
“I’m lucky enough to have a little bit of land I can turn them out if I need to, but a lot of guys don’t. My heart was breaking for those guys.”
All the races were also broadcast live on the TVG Network. Hibdon certainly appreciated that.
“I have that TVG app from home and I was watching it and it’s pretty cool to see Fonner Park being broadcasted to the nation,” Hibdon said. “So it’s exciting. I have horses at Houston and it shut down, so (coronavirus) is shutting them down all across the country. To see Fonner Park surviving and making a go at it … I mean these guys are just awesome. I don’t know how we’re pulling it off but we’re doing it.”
But Kotulak cautioned it may not last.
Fonner is now racing Monday through Wednesday on a two-week trial basis. Kotulak doesn’t know if it will make sense to race beyond that.
“Today’s mutuel handle of $1.3 million funded roughly only four future races and didn’t even cover our expenses for our weekly operation’s payroll,” he said.
Although Fonner had a large handle, only $28,571 came from on-site wagering. That leaves Kotulak wondering if this experiment is going to work.
“So we have a two-week trial. We have to keep pushing on,” he said. “And I think we put a nice foot forward as far as the video presentation and the new eyes that saw us.”
In just the last day, Kotulak said Fonner completed six new contracts with wagering facilities around the nation and even in Australia and Canada.
“All I want to do is conduct racing here, but I want to do it in a sensible manner,” Kotulak said. “I’m concerned about what we are going to accomplish in our two-week trial period.”
But for now, Hibdon and the other horsemen are happy that Fonner is trying.
“This is wonderful that we’re doing this today,” Hibdon said. “I’m tickled to death about it. We’ll see how it goes. I hope everybody gets to win.”
— Jockey Jake Olesiak teamed up with trainer Isai Gonzalez to win the seventh race with Cuckoo Kenia and the featured eighth race with Moonfield.
— Olesiak also won on Heir Horse One for trainer Jeff Womochil in the fifth.
— Jockey Scott Bethke took both legs of the early daily double. He won on Yayasgotmoregame for trainer Grady Thompson in the first and on Pretty Rich for trainer Kyndra McKinney in the second. It was the first win of the meet for McKinney.
— Jockey Rilardo Carpio and trainer Gilbert Ecoffey both picked up their first wins of the meet with La India in the sixth.