Husker track in fight to survive

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GRAND ISLAND, Neb. --- All but a few of the betting windows at Fonner Park are shuttered. The patrons, mostly older, study the Daily Racing Form and programs at folding tables. Some mill about the drab concourse. Some sit in the enclosed grandstand.

Outside, about a half-dozen fans watch along the track apron as the horses head for home in a race run for a modest $4,300 purse.

Such are things these days at Fonner Park, which used to teem with activity this time of year.

Like many tracks around the nation, Fonner Park has struggled the past two decades because of an aging fan base and competition for the entertainment and gambling dollar. Unlike many racing states, however, Nebraska hasn't attempted to counter the trend by allowing other forms of gambling at its three tracks.

What troubles racing people here is that the sport is dying a slow death in what once was a Midwest racing hub. The state was the nation's first to legalize pari-mutuel wagering, in 1935.

"First to worst," said longtime Nebraska horse trainer David Anderson.

Fonner used to fill up with 8,000 fans on its best days in the 1980s, the heyday of Nebraska racing. But on this clear but cool and windy spring afternoon, there aren't 800 in the place.

"You think about those days when the stands were full," Anderson said, his voice trailing off. "If we don't get something done legislatively by 2010, racing as we know it in Nebraska will be virtually done."

Other racing states allow their tracks to supplement purses with revenue from slot machines, card games or other types of gambling. Competitive purses attract quality racing stock, and the extra proceeds help cover the tracks' costs of doing business.

In Nebraska, there's a strong anti-gambling lobby, and voters and legislators have turned back every effort to add other types at the state's tracks.

There isn't much romance to racing at tracks like Fonner. In the rickety wooden barns in the stable area, mom-and-pop training operations are the rule. The motivation isn't to get rich. It's about the love of the sport. The bottom line for many simply is to prove "my horse if faster than yours."

Making ends meet is a challenge. Wagering is a small fraction of what it used to be, purses are stagnant or dropping, and the prices for fuel and feed are rising.

Without other forms of gambling at the tracks, racing is unlikely to survive in Nebraska.

"If you look at other states, the only ones doing well are the ones that have alternate forms of gambling," said longtime Fonner Park general manager Hugh Miner Jr. "There are those forces out there (in Nebraska) that will continue to fight any change. It's just a tough go."

The tracks' problems have been exacerbated because customers are being lured away by stand-alone casinos in neighboring states.

Racing in Iowa and Kansas is holding its own because patrons at the tracks can bet on more than just races.

Horse wagering in Nebraska, from its peak in 1985, has dropped 76.8 percent when measured in 2007 dollars, according to the Nebraska State Racing Commission.

There are now just 103 racing days in Nebraska, but year-round simulcasting means Nebraskans can bet on races across the country.

Nebraska racing was once driven by Aksarben, where as many as 25,000 fans bet more than $2 million a day on weekends in the 1980s. At the time, it was among the top 10 tracks in attendance and wagering.

Aksarben management failed to respond when dog racing started in 1986. Other forms of gambling followed, and crowds and wagering dwindled. In 1995, 10 years after Aksarben's record-setting season, the track ran its last race. The mammoth facility has been torn down.

All that's left in Nebraska are the three small tracks and an industry struggling to remain relevant.


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