Fonner Park: Still Running and Breaking Records

Posted By Jennifer Newell on April 7, 2020

In the middle of March, racetracks around America began to close their doors to spectators amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Orders from state governments and health officials dictated an end to public gatherings, and this prompted all non-essential businesses to close their doors.

Many horse tracks tried to keep their races on schedule, simply running them without spectators while implementing new cleaning standards and practicing social distancing at their facilities. However, most ultimately decided to close altogether, some on their own and others at the behest of state officials.

By the last week of March, only seven tracks remained open for racing without spectators. And by the first weekend in April, that number was reduced to six.

One of the tracks still running is Fonner Park.

More than two weeks ago, Playfecta profiled Fonner Park in Nebraska and its efforts to stay open and keep racing. Fonner Park management, along with the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) and Nebraska Thoroughbred Breeders Association (NTBA), fought the orders of Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele.

And the track won. Racing continued, albeit with no fans in the stands.

Setting Handle Records

On Tuesday, March 31, Fonner Park ran nine races, the highlight being the 25th running of the Pepsi Stakes with a $15,450 purse. Mean Erika took it down with a come-from-behind victory.

And on that day, Fonner Park set a handle record with $2,836,646 on the nine races. It was an all-time record for the racetrack in its 67 years of operation.

In fact, since the year 2000, when on April 1 (a Saturday) of that year the handle reached $619,237, the handle never eclipsed $600,000. But it did on four dates in addition to the March 31 record cited above.

  • Tuesday, March 24, 2020 = $2,221,301 handle
  • Monday, March 30, 2020 = $2,176,010 handle
  • Wednesday, March 25, 2020 = $1,643,822 handle
  • Monday March 23, 2020 = $1,340,265 handle

According to Horse Racing Nation, the five recent handle amounts are the top five in the history of Fonner Park. And the month of March came in at more than 272% over the handle recorded in March 2019.

GM Chris Kotulak was careful to note that his track takes only 3% to 4% of simulcast handle. “We’re pretty much at the bottom rung of host fees,” he said. That take is also split with the horsemen’s purse account.

Further, Kotulak told the Grand Island Independent that a $1.3 million handle only funds about four future races and doesn’t cover the expenses for their weekly operational payroll. And it left him wondering if the two-week trial of racing without spectators will be worth it.

It may not be a boon for the facility, but Kotulak said it is keeping the track in survival mode. And the coverage on TVG was refreshing.

“We have to keep pushing on,” Kotulak said. “And I think we put a nice foot forward as far as the video presentation and the new eyes that saw us.” Many of the horsemen are also happy with the effort.

Latest COVID-19 Rules

On Monday, April 6, Fonner Park announced two new sets of rules, four hours apart.

The first pertained to arriving racing personnel, whether to relocate to race or ride, must adhere to new guidelines. If they arrive from a state with a population larger than 50,000 and one dubbed by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) as a state with widespread virus statistics (more than 1,000 reported cases), they must quarantine for a minimum of 14 days before entering Fonner Park.

The second announcement regarded a trial saddling process to encourage social distancing. There will always be one stall gap between each horse in the paddock. And the horses for each race will divide into groups for all paddock activities. The groups will also stay in place for the post parade.

In addition, Fonner Park asked that everyone at the track, in any capacity, wear a mask or bandana covering one’s nose and mouth at all times.


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Jennifer Newell

Jennifer Newell is a freelance writer living in her hometown of St. Louis after stints in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. She has written about poker for more than 15 years but added other forms of gambling and horse racing to her repertoire in the last few years. She grew up with a love for horse racing from her now-late father, who loved to play the ponies. Jennifer can be found on Twitter at @writerjen.

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