For now, happy hour draws and chicken wing specials, and the chance to throw down a few bucks on thoroughbreds running in other states, mark attractions at Lincoln Race Course.
But the idle construction rigs in the parking lot and the rails marking the new larger track signify a much different future.
For entertainment-seekers, Lance Morgan and Lynne McNally believe the sales pitch of “Lincoln’s Best Bet” on the digital sign outside is about to deliver a significant payout.
Morgan, the Ho-Chunk Inc. executive, calls Lincoln Race Course his Taj Mahal. McNally, a WarHorse project leader and executive vice president of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, likens its potential to California’s Del Mar.
Plans are underway to transform the meager simulcast building, with its bar and restaurant, into a $200 million hotel, casino and event space.
WarHorse would feature a 196-room hotel overlooking the racetrack, as many as 1,200 gambling stations, a spa, restaurant, bars and conference and event space.
Once a site envisioned as a shopping hub, the grounds off U.S. 77 and West Denton Road carry the potential to catalyze tourism in the city and shape further growth on Lincoln’s western edge.
Preparations made during the mid-2000s to ready the land for a Walmart Supercenter and other retail primed the area for a future that involves attracting thousands of people daily, said Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Director David Cary.
The recession jettisoned plans to put in the big-box behemoth and build out Southwood Village. But two decades later, potential remains for the area adjacent to the West Bypass
“It is ready to go,” Cary said.
After the State Fair’s move to Grand Island and plans for Nebraska Innovation Campus took off on the former fairgrounds, Lincoln Race Course opened at 7055 S. First St. in 2013. A track with a single straightaway was completed two years later.
WarHorse’s proposed multistory casino and hotel complex would dominate the swath of land, taking up 165,000 square feet and featuring a three-story, 900-stall parking garage, according to documents filed with the Planning Commission. Construction of the WarHorse casino resort would occur in phases, likely beginning next year, project officials have said.
Nebraska has not yet implemented the necessary rules for casino gambling at licensed horse tracks, approved by voters in November.
Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Jeff Maul has not crunched numbers yet, but the tourism created by WarHorse could give Lincoln a well-timed boost.
“As we come out of a pandemic, this could be seen as an economic engine to grow our tourism economy,” Maul said.
The new seven-furlong track completed last year will feature upgrades aimed at bringing world-class racing to Lincoln, McNally said.
Before the demise of State Fair Park, the city regularly hosted thoroughbred racing meets dating to the 1940s.
“We’re definitely going to be getting back to that,” McNally said.
Once the casino and hotel are finished, WarHorse could bring as many as 925 jobs to the city while generating as much as $15 million in state and local tax revenue annually, according to project officials.
WarHorse Gaming is a subsidiary to Ho-Chunk, the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe.