LINCOLN — The seeds of a comeback in Thoroughbred horse racing have been planted in a former soybean field.
A $6 million sports bar and simulcasting facility opened last week in Lincoln, replacing a location inside the grandstands at the old State Fair Park that had a leaky roof, unpredictable air conditioning and elevators that didn’t all work.
“Come on, No. 3! Come on, No. 3!” one patron shouted as dozens of big-screen televisions showed the stretch run Friday afternoon of a race at California’s Santa Anita Park.
Owned by an association of horse breeders and owners, the Lincoln Race Course Winner’s Circle Sports Bar & Grille is an expensive wager that nicer, newer facilities will spark a rebound in the sport of kings.
It’s a sport that’s seen three decades of decline in wagering and now has only two tracks left in the state with substantial live racing.
Right now, the Lincoln facility, located just off U.S. Highway 77 at Denton Road on Lincoln’s southwestern edge, is a Thoroughbred racetrack without a track.
The only horses there are those broadcast on the more than 230 TV screens from tracks across the country. A racetrack in Lincoln won’t be built unless simulcasting and other fundraising efforts are successful.
But those placing bets last week, as well as operators of Winner’s Circle, say they’re hopeful that the new facility will lead to a 1-mile racetrack, barns and grandstands — a $10 million project — allowing a return of live racing to Lincoln of more than a token race or two a year.
“I am more optimistic about racing today than I have been in a long time,” said Lynne Schuller of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which owns the Winner’s Circle. “I just left the place, and it’s full.”
Opponents of expanded gambling say it’s more mirage than manna from heaven. Horse racing is dying, they say, and the only purpose for such new facilities is to host slot machines.
“It’s all about those (slot) machines. That’s where the money is,” said Pat Loontjer of Gambling with the Good Life.
Casinos in neighboring Iowa and other states have booted the slower-moving horse races out of the gambling saddle.
Omaha’s nationally recognized Ak-Sar-Ben track closed after the 1995 season. Wagering has tumbled from a high of more than $200 million a year in the 1980s to about $84 million in 2011. The ponies raced only 52 days in Nebraska this year, mainly at small tracks in Grand Island and Columbus, compared with 233 days of racing in 1985.
Nationally there’s been a move to legalize slot machines and other forms of gambling at racetracks to provide the revenue to support live racing. Traditional wagering isn’t enough, industry officials say.
But that idea has stalled at the starting gate in Nebraska, which was the first state in the union to legalize pari-mutuel betting on horses, way back in 1934.
There will be another attempt in the Nebraska Legislature in 2014 to give racetracks more tools to raise money for purses, which pay the salaries of the trainers, breeders and jockeys.
A proposed constitutional amendment to allow wagering on “historic” horse races broadcast on video terminals is expected to be debated. The measure advanced from first-round debate this spring by a 29-19 vote. That’s one vote short of what’s eventually needed to put it on the ballot in 2014.
State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, sponsor of the constitutional amendment, said last week that it’s hard to predict now how much support he’ll have in the next session.
But he said the opening of the simulcast facility in Lincoln should demonstrate that the industry is genuinely trying to generate the money to revive live racing.
“The critics always seem to suggest that the track only exists to run simulcasting,” Lautenbaugh said. “I think they have it backwards.”
Loontjer disagreed, saying the betting on historic horse races is akin to slot machines, an addictive “crack cocaine of gambling” that contributes to all sorts of social ills.
“That’s not horse racing,” she said of the videocast races.
By law, Lincoln Race Course must have some kind of track built and conduct at least one live race involving Nebraska-bred horses by the end of 2014, said Tom Sage, executive director of the State Racing Commission. That would allow the facility to take simulcast bets another year, through 2015.
The new facility complied with state law this year by running a 13-second, 220-yard race with three horses on Jan. 8 at the old State Fair Park, property now owned by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Loontjer called the token race a “farce.” Racetrack officials say it puts them in compliance with state law.
Sage said that the state’s racetracks, as a whole, must comply with another state law. It requires at least 49 days of live racing a year. Since the track at the fairgrounds in Lincoln closed, the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association had to step in to keep the track in Columbus open and comply with the 49-day requirement.
The new facility in Lincoln is expected to bring in more revenue for the Nebraska Horsemen’s group than the old facility at the fairgrounds, but the industry will still need the added money that betting on historic horse races would generate, said manager Christy Harris. Simulcast and restaurant revenue is being used to pay off loans on the Winner’s Circle.
“There needs to be something to fund the purses,” said Harris, daughter of Iowa quarter horse trainers who formerly directed operations at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park and CenturyLink Center.
Loontjer said she’ll be keeping an eye on whether the Lincoln Race Course is complying with the law. She said she has already done some lobbying to block Lautenbaugh’s proposal in 2014.
But at the Winner’s Circle on Friday, positive vibes prevailed. Bettors snacked on homemade pizzas, marveled at the wall-size video screens and dreamed of the day when horses might rumble down the homestretch of a new track in Lincoln.
“This is better than I expected,” said Steve Johnson, a retired railroad engineer. “Very well done.”