By a 3-2 vote, the Nebraska State Racing Commission approved installation of historic racing machines at Fonner Park.
Commission chairman Dennis P. Lee of Omaha cast the deciding vote after the other four members of the board split 2-2 Wednesday in a meeting at the Fonner Park Cafe.
“The big question in my view with regard to any new wagering, is does it meet the test of parimutuel wagering,” Lee said. “Other states have different requirements. Nebraska is not unlike other states in that it has those same parimutuel requirements.”
In Lee’s opinion, the historic racing machines are indeed another form of parimutuel wagering, and after considering all the evidence, he voted in favor of the measure.
New Fonner Park CEO Chris Kotulak, who takes over for the retiring Bruce Swihart on Thursday, said he was pleased with the board’s decision.
“I believe and many other people believe it will be the shot in the arm the Nebraska horse racing industry needs, but it can also be a tremendous boost with the tax revenue for the state of Nebraska,” Kotulak said. “I think they will see that immediately once terminals are installed.”
Kotulak said the machines should be up and running sometime between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. The Fonner Park board of directors have already given its OK to put them in after they were approved by the racing commission.
“At least half a year ago I asked my board if this is approved, are we going to go forward with installing historical horse racing terminals,” Kotulak said. “The members, and they’re all Grand Island residents, said yes, we want this to happen. We want to have HHR terminals installed at Fonner Park.”
Kotulak sees the historic racing machines as a positive for everyone involved.
“Some of the models we’ve discussed as far as simply just tax revenue, could be $15 million, and that’s just in tax revenue alone,” Kotulak said. “Keep in mind purse money is going to benefit from these historical horse racing machines as well, and it would be a tremendous boost for the whole breeding industry in Nebraska.”
The historic racing machines have been a big hit in other states like Kentucky and Arkansas. They have even made it into Wyoming where they’ve had a profound effect on thoroughbred racing there.
“I just know that we’ve seen the incredible results in other states, some as close as Wyoming, whose racing product in the past has never been close to the quality of racing in Nebraska,” Kotulak said. “Now I’m not so sure it’s not better, with the purse money for sure.”
Kotulak said racing in Virginia had disappeared, but now after installing historic racing machines the state will be resuming live racing in a matter of weeks.
“Virginia racing went away until they got historical horse racing approved and now in a matter of weeks they’re going to start up another race meet with tremendous purse money,” Kotulak said. “This is no different than Nebraska horse racing.”
Fonner was originally given the go ahead by the racing commission on Oct. 29 to install the machines, but those plans were put on hold after the reaction Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson. There was another meeting in January where the commission heard testimony from both sides of the issue, and asked those concerned to submit their ideas to the commission.
And now, after considerable deliberation, the commission voted to approve the measure.
Kotulak isn’t sure what reaction the proposed installation of historic racing machines at Fonner Park will get from the Peterson’s office.
“I don’t know what to expect from the attorney general,” Kotulak said. “He told us what he didn’t like the first time it was approved. It’s been re-approved following the parameters he said we needed to stay within, so who knows what to expect.”
Mike Newlin, vice president and general manager of Horsemen’s Park in Omaha and Lincoln Racecourse, said those two tracks will be in a holding pattern for now in relation to historic racing machines.
“I think with the Omaha and Lincoln tracks, we’ll probably let Fonner install them and see how it plays out. I think it’s wait and see for us,” Newlin said. “Let Fonner put them in and see what happens, make sure there are no legal recourses and we’ll look at it at that time.”
“...Until we know something definitive, we’re just going to sit back and wait and see how things turn out.”
In other business, the commission:
— Approved simulcast agreements for Fonner Park, Horsemen’s Park, Columbus Exhibition and Racing and Lincoln Race Course for the summer season.
— Approved Columbus request to change the number of racing days for its upcoming meet from 14 to 11 days.
— Approved Columbus request for post time of 6:30 p.m. on Fridays and 2 p.m. on Sundays and Labor Day.
— Approved a request by Omaha Exposition and Racing to move dates for live racing at Lincoln Race Course from Sept. 6-8 to Nov. 9 in order for the contractors so that improvements, which were delayed by poor winter weather and a wet spring, can be completed in time for the races.
— Approved request by OER for a 2 p.m. post time for Lincoln Race Course on Nov. 9, which is an off day for Husker football, for two races.