Horse racing in Lincoln is entering its final days for the near future. After this summer’s racing season ends, the track will be folded into the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s redevelopment of the former state fairgrounds. The loss of a Lincoln track is a major setback for Nebraska’s racing industry, but there are new plans to keep horses running in the capital city.
May has been a good month for horse racing. After two dramatic finishes at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, I’ll Have Another is one race away from becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years. Far away from Pimlico or Churchill Downs, the racing season atLincoln Race Course also got off to a strong start.
On opening day, spectators lined up at betting counters to make wagers on the next race. Behind the glass, Judd Bietz, the operations director at Lincoln Race Course, was reassured by the size of the crowd.
“They’re coming out of the woodwork. If you look out there they’re still coming in the door and we’re at the fourth race,” Bietz said. “I’m thrilled that it’s such a success on opening day, but I’m sad in the sense that 28 more days and live racing is done in Lincoln for the foreseeable future.”
On July 8, after the last thoroughbred crosses the finish line, most of the track will be turned over to the University of Nebraska to become part of its Innovation Campus. Bietz said the arrangement allows simulcasting to continue until August 2013.
“That’s pretty much it,” Bietz said. “The university is going to come in shortly after live racing. They’re going to start tearing down some barns and building some parking lots.”
Horse racing losing speed
Losing a track in Lincoln is just the latest sign that Nebraska’s horse racing industry is slowing down. Since the Aksarben track in Omaha closed in 1995, the number of live racing days in Nebraska has dropped from 183 to 90 in 2012.
Tom Sage, executive secretary of the Nebraska State Racing Commission which regulates the racing industry, also pointed to the decline in the amount of money being wagered at Nebraska tracks. Money taken in from bets is called “handle.” Over the last 10 years, the handle collected at Nebraska tracks has fallen 27%, from $113.8 million in 2001 to $83.5 million in 2011. Sage said Lincoln counts for a large portion of the handle collected in the state.
“About 26% of the pari-mutuel handle was wagered in Lincoln in 2011,” Sage said. “We lose 26% of handle, already on a declining handle as we are now, and that affects revenue for tracks, revenue for owners and trainers, and revenue for the racing commission.”
The Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) wants to replace the Lincoln track, starting with a new simulcast facility in southwest Lincoln. Simulcasting is really what keeps Nebraska horse racing alive.
Eighty-six percent of wagers taken in by Nebraska tracks last year were made on simulcast races run outside of the state, like the Kentucky Derby. To continue simulcasting each track in Nebraska must host at least one day of live racing. State law also requires a minimum of 72 days of racing statewide. If Lincoln only runs one day to keep its doors open, and with Atokad Downs in South Sioux City also closing this year, meeting those requirements will be a challenge. Greg Hosch, who managesHoresmen’s Park in Omaha and oversees racing at other tracks operated by the HBPA, said the tracks in Grand Island, Columbus, and Omaha will have to pick up the slack.
“You won’t see 30 days of live racing (in Lincoln) for a number of years unless someone stands up an hands them about 10 million dollars,” Hosch said.
An uphill battle
Even if a new track gets up and running in Lincoln, horse racing would only be getting back to the status quo. Getting beyond that is a matter of political support, and it recent years it has not been there.
Recent attempts to ease laws on simulcasting or allow betting on previously recorded races ran into vetoes from the Governor. Attempts to allow slot machines or keno have also failed. One senator last year called Nebraska horse racing a dead industry.
Judd Bietz at Lincoln Race Course acknowledged the industry is facing long odds.
“The horsemen have uphill battle. There’s no doubt about it,” Bietz said. “It’s a tough business. You don’t see many tracks being built just because it is such a difficult time in horse racing.”
For now, the future of Nebraska horse racing may ride on whether a new track in Lincoln makes it out of the gate.