Horse racing tracks are being proposed for Bellevue and York, now that Nebraska voters have approved trackside casinos.
And a longtime opponent of gaming in Nebraska believes this is the first wave in a tide of tracks and casinos across the state.
In November, Nebraskans overwhelmingly approved casino gambling as long as it was tied to a horse track. The measure was seen as a way to bolster the state’s horse racing industry and keep gambling revenues in Nebraska.
Nebraska already has six horse racing tracks, in Grand Island, Hastings, Omaha, South Sioux City, Columbus and Lincoln. Since the November election, casinos have been announced at five of those tracks.
Ho-Chunk, the economic development corporation for the Winnebago Tribe, will manage casinos in Omaha, Lincoln and South Sioux City under the name WarHorse Gaming LCC.
Harrah’s also has announced plans to build a $75 million casino and racetrack complex in Columbus.
And Iowa-based Elite Casino Resorts has been selected as the casino operator for Grand Island’s Fonner Park.
Other Nebraska communities, including North Platte, have expressed interest in building a racetrack in pursuit of an eventual casino.
The Bellevue and York proposals are the first applications to apply that do not already have an existing racetrack.
Keno operator John Hassett is leading the effort to build the racetrack in Bellevue. In his application, Hassett notes that Bellevue is the state’s largest city without a horse track.
Hassett, his wife, Alberta, and their daughter, Kyle Allen, have formed the corporation Aksarben Equine Inc. to operate the track, which would be located on 120 acres at the northeast corner of U.S. 75 and Capehart Road. The track would be called Belle Vue Downs, or The Vue, for short.
Hassett is president of Advanced Gaming Technologies, which owns the Bellevue and Plattsmouth keno parlors and more than 60 other keno satellite locations around the state.
In the Bellevue application, Hassett says his company has secured rights to the land and would begin construction immediately upon approval. The track would be 5/8 mile, the grandstand would accommodate an average of 2,000 spectators, and the races would feature quarterhorses. The site also has space for a future hotel.
Hassett said his primary interest is in the horse track. He hopes to add a casino, he said, because it would support the track by providing money for larger purses. But that’s not something he has pursued at this point.
Hassett’s application also notes that the company would support youth programs like 4H and rodeo and would include a focus on programs for autistic children.
In York, the Jensen and Alt families are teaming up to propose a track near the Interstate 80 and U.S. 81 interchange. They, too, have secured rights to the land. Their 5/8-mile track would offer both quarterhorse and thoroughbred racing. A casino, hotel, pool and two restaurants are proposed as part of the project.
Ken and Bev Jensen, Drew and Jane Jensen and Ryan and Sheri Alt have formed the corporation, TopGun LLC, to hold the land and property. The track itself would be operated by a nonprofit, Freedom Bay LLC, according to the application. A representative of their group couldn’t be reached for comment.
The facility also could host rodeos, horse shows and provide other entertainment options for the York area, according to the application. The facility would be named Casino 353, after the York I-80 exit, according to the application. The track would be named Freedom Bay Race track.
The proposed horse racing tracks are on the July 16 agenda of the Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission.
Tom Sage, executive director of the Racing and Gaming Commission, said the meeting is open to the public, and public comment will be taken. People can also comment ahead of time. The meeting will be at 1:30 p.m. at the commission’s offices, 5903 Walker Ave. in Lincoln.
Sage said a simple majority of the current six-member commission is required for approval of a horseracing application. The commission will hear the applications at the meeting, but it’s not immediately clear whether the commission will vote this month or schedule the vote at a subsequent meeting, he said.
Adding a casino to these tracks would require a separate application process, he said.
“This is a new process for everybody,” he said.
Pat Loontjer, executive director of Gambling with the Good Life, which fought casino gaming in Nebraska for 25 years, said she’s not surprised to see two applications already and expects to see many more.
“You’re talking Katy bar the door, “ she said. “We’re going to end up with a whole bunch of mini casinos all across Nebraska. They can put a racetrack anywhere, run their race one day a year, and they can build a casino next to it. ... It’s so sad because so much money is going to be lost by good Nebraskans.”