Fonner Park Horse Racing Kicks Off 70th Anniversary Season

Written By Adam Hensley on December 6, 2022 - Last Updated on February 14, 2023
Fonner Park horse racing begins Dec. 15

So far, so good for the Nebraska casino and horse racing track, Fonner Park. Nebraska and Iowa horse betting pros will be happy to hear that Fonner Park’s main track officially opens on Dec. 15.

Racing meets span from Feb. 10 to May 6. CEO Chris Kotulak provided an update on the racetrack and hinted at a possible opening date for the new temporary casino.

According to Kotulak, Fonner received a 5% purse increase ahead of Fonner Park’s 70th anniversary season. A purse increase, albeit small like this one, could still be attractive to competitive horse breeders.

“I know that is small potatoes but based on the poor 2022 season we had (based on decreased revenue due to the EHV-1 outbreak) this is the best we can offer — for now.”

The park’s training track and stable opened last week. And the track’s jogger device used for exercising horses also began on Dec. 2.

What happened with Fonner Park’s EHV-1 outbreak?

EHV-1 – otherwise known as equine herpes – was detected at Fonner Park back in March.

At the time of the outbreak, Fonner Park placed a 21-day quarantine on barn R, where it detected the illness. The result was a loss in revenue for the park.

Kotulak told the Grand Island Independent that more than 100 horses didn’t race or come to Fonner Park during the outbreak. According to Kotulak, bettors gambled fewer dollars on six- or seven-horse fields than those with closer to ten.

“We never recovered after that, so that was hurtful to us,” Kotulak told the Independent.

Fonner Park CEO hopes competitive purse money attracts horsemen

With the EHV-1 outbreak behind, Fonner Park looks to make positive strides in the coming year. Kotulak wrote in a letter.

“This year and the years to come remain crucial in attracting horsemen with competitive purse money. Without profits derived from our casino partners, Elite Casino Resorts, LLC, there simply would be no light or hope.”

Fonner Park paid $21,000 for a new conditioner harrow to better the racing and training surfaces.

“Fonner Park is an old, proper racetrack that is appreciated by many for what it is and what it provides, so it is key that we invest all we can afford to maintain expectations,” Kotulak wrote.

What’s the latest on the Grand Island casino?

Assuming the Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission approves the operation, Fonner Park’s temporary casino should open before Christmas. Kotulak and Fonner Park Casino general manager Vince Fiala remain optimistic about the commission’s approval.

“The commission here realizes the importance of getting gaming to the area,” Fiala said earlier this year. “They were able to get Lincoln open. Now we should be next in line here to get us open.”

Grand Island’s temporary casino will feature 280 slot machines. Live table games will be available as well. Horse betting and additional table games will appear in 2023.

Work on the temporary casino began in September, but the project hit a few bumps in the road during its construction. Kotulak reported supply chain issues derailed the timeframe for construction materials. Labor shortages slowed things down as well.

When the permanent casino is finished, it will offer up to 850 slot machines, a sportsbook and a show lounge. There will also be a 116-room hotel, spa and salon and a fine dining restaurant.

Kotulak said last year:

“Not everybody has to sit down at a slot machine or a table game. We want them to know that they can come for an entertainment experience: A good meal, maybe hear some live music, whatever that case may be.

Fonner Park has been the hub for entertainment since 1954. And this is just another spoke in that wheel — a rather large and mighty spoke to be sure.”

Grand Island Casino Resort at Fonner Park – the permanent casino – remains a few years out. Nebraskans can use the temporary casino in the meantime until the final project reaches completion in 2024 or 2025.

Photo by PlayIA
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Adam Hensley

Adam Hensley is a journalist from Des Moines, Iowa. His byline has appeared in the Associated Press, Sports Illustrated and sites within the USA Today Network. Hensley graduated from the University of Iowa in 2019 and spent his college career working for the Daily Iowan’s sports department, both as an editor and reporter.

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