As safety precautions took hold across America in the past several weeks in response to COVID-19, they affected nearly everyone in every industry. Health authorities and government officials limited – or even prohibited altogether – public gatherings. Casinos and racetracks were not exempt.
Racetracks depend upon wagering for their livelihoods. Spectators and bettors – sometimes one and the same – are the key to maintaining a successful racing venue.
When spectators are essentially banned, what is a track to do? The decisions that racetracks around America have made in the past few weeks have been tough, heartbreaking even.
One of those tracks juggling possibilities to see what will work is Fonner Park.
The Start of the Story of Fonner Park
The relatively small racetrack is in Grand Island, Nebraska, just north of the Platte River, is a town of fewer than 50,000 people. The Grand Island metropolitan area isn’t much bigger, boasting of little more than 83,000 residents.
It is the epitome of small-town America, complete with the Nebraska State Fair nearby. Its people predominantly work in the numerous manufacturing plants or in the agricultural realm.
The racetrack started as an idea devised by a few dozen businessmen and farmers in the area. Throughout the 1950s, they grew interest in the project and attracted about 250 families and $350,000 in investments.
On the original 80 acres of land, they built 10 barns for more than 400 horses and a paddock. They constructed a grandstand for approximately 2,000 fans. There was a parking lot and a 5/8-mile track. The first 15-day meet began on April 29, 1954 in front of about 3,000 fans. By the following year, the track attracted about 5,000 spectators daily during the 18-day meet.
In 1959, August Fonner, who donated the original land for the racetrack died. His name lived on in the name of the park and its consistent growth with new seating and barns added through the 1960s and 1970s. By 1988, there were eight weeks of live racing each year with new simulcasting.
Today, Fonner Park offers live horse racing from mid-February through the first Saturday in May. The facility is open throughout the year, though, to host events, shows, and horse care and training.
Kicking Off 2020 at Fonner Park
The season was set to start on February 21, 2020, and run through May 2 with 31 days of live racing. The Nebraska Racing Commission also announced race dates for the five other tracks in Nebraska, but none competed with Fonner Park.
The track did host its races from February 21 forward, with 10 claims races in February alone and another five in the first eight days of March.
The biggest race at Fonner Park each summer is the Bosselman/Gus Fonner Stakes in late April, this year set for April 25. The 8.5-furlong race offers a $75,000 purse. The Dowd Mile (8 furlongs), Fonner Park Special (6 furlongs), and Al Swihart Memorial (6.5 furlongs) each offer $20,000 purses. All of the stakes races were to run from March 28 to May 2.
Fonner Park showed its January pari-mutuel handle numbers, and they were solid. The interstate handle was $743,099, up 3.2% from 2019. It was a good sign after a rough start to 2019 that saw year-on-year dips of nearly 15% in February and more than 10% in March. A new year in a new decade started on a positive note.
Enter the Coronavirus
The policy changes began on March 12. Fonner Park announced that racing would proceed as scheduled that weekend, though the facility planned to take measures to “elevate standard measures of sanitation and healthy interaction among employees, horsemen and guests.” This meant increased handwashing and decreased physical interactions.
After that weekend, everything changed.
Per Governor Pete Ricketts’ recommendation that gatherings should be restricted to 10 people or less, the Nebraska Racing Commission ordered the March 27-29 meet at Fonner Park postponed.
Fonner Park responded with a news release of its own, citing Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele’s request to close the track and end the live racing season until further notice. CEO Chris Kotulak agreed to oblige but issued this statement:
“The very essence of Fonner Park is to be a civic pillar and agriculture benefactor for Central Nebraska. Our purpose, business and hundreds of employees and horsemen will be drastically burdened, as will the crucial local taxes linked to all the events on the Fonner Park campus. Nevertheless, I understand and respect Mayor Steele’s decision.”
Further, though racing was suspended indefinitely, Fonner Keno and Finish Line Restaurant Lounge remained open. “I am sorry for our loss and your loss,” read that statement. “WE share the pain – as do hundreds of millions of people across our nation who are dealing with this crisis.”
Not Giving Up So Quickly
By March 19, Fonner Park made an announcement in conjunction with the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) and Nebraska Thoroughbred Breeders Association (NTBA). They decided to start a two-week trial period of no-spectator racing.
It will begin on Monday, March 23, and they plan to continue it through Wednesday, April 1. Races will run on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays with a 3:30pm CT first post. Each day, at least eight races will run.
While no general spectators will be allowed, those with current Nebraska horse racing licenses and directly involved with a horse participating in races on that day will be permitted to view that race only in a designated area.
The restaurant will remain open, though the entire indoor facility has been thoroughly cleaned, and everyone is maintaining standard social distancing parameters.
Kotulak said the decision to race is to provide a “continued opportunity for (the horses’) caregivers to maintain a livelihood through racing and the distribution of purse money from racing.”
Fans can follow along and watch the races via a livestream on the Fonner Park website or on its Facebook page.
Live Wagering Re-opened
The March 20 announcement went further. “We are open for racing and keno wagers with a no-seating, 10-guest limit.”
During the no-spectator racing period, guests will be allowed to enter the facility to make a wager and leave promptly. And they will not be allowed in the grandstand or clubhouse area.
They can also use the keno service window to complete a simple application form to open an MBet account. With a small cash deposit, guests can then wager from their mobile devices within the confines of Fonner Park.
Those wanting to watch the races live may observe from the parking lot but must maintain social distancing standards.
Fonner Park will be open from 11am to 10pm, seven days a week.