Saddle Up Or Ante Up: WarHorse Puts Casino Chips Down At 3 Nebraska Racetracks

Posted By Russ Mitchell on April 27, 2021

WarHorse Gaming wants to give Nebraska voters what they want.

Nebraska citizens approved a series of constitutional amendments in November to allow casino gaming and sports betting alongside pari-mutuel betting windows.

Currently, casino construction is underway in several Nebraska cities.

Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska tapped WarHorse Gaming to develop “racino” additions in Lincoln, Omaha and South Sioux City.

WarHorse spokesman Drew Niehaus said:

“Nebraska spoke loud and clear. This is what they want. This is what they want to do. And they also made it very clear what they want to do with the economic benefits of all of this. So, being able to start up an entirely new industry for the state — because it’s something that we never had before. It’s exciting — not just from a business perspective, but as a Nebraskan myself.”

Elite Casino Resorts recently announced its partnership with the Fonner Park racetrack to develop and operate the $100 million project, Grand Island Casino Resort.

WarHorse Lincoln construction starts this summer

Look for the construction of WarHorse Lincoln to begin early this summer at Lincoln Race Course.

According to Mike Moser, president of Omaha Exposition and Racing, they hope to have the project wrapped up in the fall of 2022.

The $220 million investment includes a 196-room hotel overlooking the track with a spa, convention center and fine-dining establishments. Plans call for about 1,200 to 1,400 gaming positions, including slot machines and seats at table games.

WarHorse Lincoln also is developing about 1,500 stalls on the backside of the racecourse, making it capable of year-round horse racing. The current race schedule in Lincoln started in mid-February and will end July 3.

Moser said:

“Right now, we will run a grand total of usually 52 to 57 race days a year. We want to expand that to the point where we’re running 150 to 200 race days a year.”

Yes, racehorses do run in the winter. Operators in the Upper Midwest take winter weather conditions into account, much like a Florida racetrack will lose days to heavy rain.

WarHorse Omaha to be ‘largest sportsbook’ in Nebraska

While an expanded racecourse will be the hallmark in Lincoln, plans at WarHorse Omaha will center around a destination-retail sportsbook.

Courtesy of WarHorse Gaming

Niehaus said:

“It’s going to end up being a very similar investment, from a monetary standpoint as to what Lincoln is. So we’re looking at a $200 (million)-$220 million investment to get it up and running. And that’s largely based on a lot of infrastructure at the facility.”

The Horsemen’s Park racecourse in an older section of Omaha, so part of the construction cost will include upgrades leading to the facility. Roads will need to be expanded for the casino traffic, as an example.

The completion timeline shadows the plans in Lincoln. WarHorse Omaha hopes to be operational by the winter of 2022-23. The result will likely be “the largest sportsbook in the state of Nebraska,” according to Niehaus.

Besides the sportsbook, WarHorse Omaha plans call for about 1,200 gaming positions.

The casino plans don’t include a hotel, but Moser said WarHorse plans various food options, including a sports bar and food court. Horsemen’s Park will host about 10 to 12 races a year.

Keeping Nebraska gaming dollars in Nebraska

Across the river, there are three casinos with sportsbooks in Council Bluffs, IA, so the plans for a large sportsbook in Omaha could be a game-changer.

Niehaus, who was a part of the Keep the Money in Nebraska campaign, said Iowa’s ability to register and bet online as of Jan. 1 was a point of emphasis leading into the Nebraska’s general election:

“Our big push from the campaign perspective was keeping the money in Nebraska. You go down the path of doing mobile games and mobile gaming — a lot of the times that doesn’t mean jobs. That doesn’t mean property tax relief. That doesn’t mean the economic benefits stay within the state. And that was very important to us.”

South Sioux City trails down the stretch

The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska operates WarHorse through Ho-Chunk Inc., and a partnership with the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA).

The groups have plans for a third multimillion project in South Sioux City, NE, according to Niehaus:

“To be honest, we’re still dealing with some real estate issues with South Sioux. So, it’s going to happen. But as far as a timeline compared to the other two, I wish I had a good answer for you.”

The racetrack operators are also keeping an eye on Legislative Bill 561. Niehaus expects a final reading of the bill by the end of the week or early next week.

“We don’t have a clear path forward as far as funding the regulatory body. This would lay out and 100% remove any ambiguity regarding sports betting: Is it a game of chance? Is it not a game of chance? It’s just very much a cleanup bill. It has all of the odds and ends that need to get addressed for gambling in the state of Nebraska to actually move forward.”

Photo by Courtesy of WarHorse Gaming
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Russ Mitchell

Russ Mitchell has been covering news and sports in northwest Iowa since 1997, including 11 years as managing editor for one of the most acclaimed community newspapers in the state. He looks forward to keeping readers up to date on the growing sportsbook industry in Iowa.

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