Proponents say it’s an attempt to revive a tradition that started 80 years ago when Nebraskans first approved pari-mutuel gambling on horse races. Opponents see it as simply another way to expand gambling.
Folks from both sides agree that it’s a good thing to let the voters decide the matter in the November election, although opponent Pat Loontjer of Gambling With the Good Life says that out-of-state money for advertising will swamp any efforts to defeat the measure. She also predicts that Nebraska Indian tribes will seize the opportunity and open their own outlets for instant racing. But Mike Kelley, a lobbyist for Nebraska horse trainers and owners, predicted the opposite. He said out-of-state casino gambling interests would invest heavily to defeat the new competition that betting on historical horse races would provide.
Much of Nebraska’s colorful Thoroughbred racing centered on Omaha’s Ak-Sar-Ben for more than 70 years. The Coliseum was a popular spot for ice hockey and big name entertainment. It also housed a cinema-sized screen and betting windows to handle fan overflow. In its heyday, Ak-Sar-Ben was 10th in the nation in attendance, with $2 million per day bet on weekends by an estimated 25,000 people.
Dog racing began across the river in Iowa in 1986 and other forms of gambling soon followed, marking the eventual end of Ak-Sar-Ben and a decline for the state’s other tracks in Columbus, Lincoln and Grand Island.
Following the closure of the racetrack, a simulcast facility, Horsemen's Park, opened in Omaha in 1998. The horse racing industry in Nebraska is now confined to live racing dates rotating from Fonner Park in Grand Island to the Lincoln Race Course in Lincoln, and finishing at Agricultural Park in Columbus, plus a four-day meet at Horseman's Park to allow that facility to keep its simulcasting license.
As he has before, Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh carried the water on the latest proposal. Gov. Dave Heineman vetoed his 2012 proposal that would have allowed the State Racing Commission to license and regulate historic horse racing. He said the measure raised constitutional issues.
Lawmakers failed to override the veto. This year’s version, passed 30-17 by lawmakers in May, proposed a constitutional amendment to allow voters to decide. That didn’t need the governor’s approval.
The world is a different place than it was in 1934. Entertainment opportunities and interests have changed markedly since 1986. The amount of options available on computers and smart phones have killed video stores and taken a bite out of revenues at movie theaters and record stores. Much of what we would call “old school” has just become “old.”
Lautenbaugh knows it’s a gamble to put it before voters. In 2004, voters rejected two proposals to allow casino gambling in Nebraska and in 2006 they defeated a plan to allow video keno in the state. Casino gambling available in border states seems to be satisfying the whims of those who want a faster-paced gaming experience.
He said the measure would resolve any constitutional concerns by amending the Nebraska Constitution to allow betting on “live or replayed” races at state racetracks. If approved by voters, the Legislature would have to revisit the issue next year and create implementation laws.
Lautenbaugh says allowing the new video wagering terminals would increase revenue for horse racing, boosting purses for Thoroughbred owners and increase live races and jobs in the industry.
He said the Instant Racing terminals allow bettors to place wagers on previously run races after being provided the racing history of the horses and jockeys involved in the rebroadcast races. The identities of the horses and riders are changed to guard against bettors recalling the outcomes of old races. The terminals can be programmed to show only the final seconds of a race, thus allowing more bets per hour.
Despite legal challenges, Instant Racing betting has been lucrative in Kentucky, generating an additional $41 million in revenue and $5.7 million for purses since the terminals were installed at two racetracks in 2011.
In Nebraska, proponents are hoping to raise enough money to build a new racetrack in Lincoln to replace the track that closed after the Nebraska State Fair moved to Grand Island.
Voters must decide if betting on historical horse races will amount to reviving an industry or just beating a dead horse.
J.L. Schmidt writes for the Nebraska Press Association.