In a meeting Wednesday at the Fonner Park 4H Cafe, the Nebraska Racing Commission approved a request by officials at Lincoln Race Course to move their scheduled days of racing from early September to Nov. 9.
The wet weather that hit Nebraska in late winter and on into the summer has put the improvements being made at Lincoln Race Course behind schedule. Those improvements include the completion of a seven-furlong track that will make a more extended racing meet possible.
Mike Newlin, the general manager for both Lincoln Race Course and Horsemen’s Park in Omaha, was on hand Wednesday as the commission approved Fonner Park’s request to install historic racing machines.
Newlin said the races on Nov. 9 — which not coincidentally is a Husker football off day — will probably be short sprint races like the track has held in the past as required by Nebraska law to keep its simulcasting license.
Newlin said it’s possible that the track would indeed be completed by Nov. 9 and ready to run a full race.
“More than likely we’ll just do the sprint races,” Newlin said. “If we run a 4 1/2 or six furlongs or a mile race, we’d have to have several camera towers to meet the state requirements for all the shots that are needed.
“So more than likely they will be sprint races, but it depends on how far along we get in the process.”
Newlin said they will have drone images available in the next couple of weeks that show the progress that has been made in constructing the track.
“I think everyone will be pleasantly surprised when they see the drone images,” Newlin said. “We’ve really come a long way. Now that the rain has let up a little bit, we’ve been able to really get out there and work it. We look forward to having a seven-furlong track in Nebraska.”
It’s a step in the right direction for the struggling horse racing industry, but there is still much to be done to get racing back on its feet. The approval of historic racing machines was another step, but that could still face court challenges down the road.
The racing industry is also behind a petition drive to get casino gambling on the 2020 ballot. Every state around Nebraska has casino gambling, and Iowa is adding sports betting in just the next week or two, which is of great concern to the folks at Horsemen’s Park.
“That’s going to have a detrimental effect on Horsemen’s Park because we’re competing against four casinos now 10 minutes from our front door,” Newlin said. “So with Iowa having sports betting, the urgency for us to get a ballot initiative passed or to get some additional gaming revenue is extremely important.”
So historic racing machines may be one of the answers. So is casino gambling — or a combination of the two.
It’s been estimated that Nebraskans spend $520 million a year gambling in those neighboring states. That’s money that could be better used within the state’s borders for things like property tax relief and educational funding.
“We really want to focus on getting the initiative passed and hopefully having it on the ballot in 2020,” Newlin said. “We’re pretty confident that if we can get it on the ballot, it will pass. We believe a majority of Nebraskans will support this. They realize we’ve been giving our money away to other states for entirely too long.”
But at this point in time, with so many unknowns, Lincoln Race Course is still looking at a more expanded slate of racing next year. Exactly what that schedule will look like is yet to be determined.
It will depend on the revenue available for purses, and that’s all generated by money coming in through simulcasting.
If Horsemen’s Park takes a hit because of the Iowa sports betting, that could affect what Lincoln Race Course can do next summer.
Newlin said Horsemen’s Park may run a couple of days less and they may try to extend Lincoln as many weekends as possible, but Newlin doesn’t expect a full racing meet until additional forms of revenue become available.
“We need other forms of revenue to be able to run a full meet like we used to run at State Fair Park or Ak-Sar-Ben,” Newlin said. “We just don’t have the money any more.”
The Nebraska breeding industry has also suffered in recent years. The purses have shrunk to where it’s just not profitable to breed race horses in the state.
“So if we can get something going, there will be plenty of available funds to fund live racing, boost the breeder’s program,” Newlin said. “If things move fast, you’re going to see a lot of Nebraska breds. There are going to be a lot of people who want Nebraska breds.”
Bob Hamar is sports editor for The Independent.