By Steve White, Grand Island Bureau Chief - bio | email
A major milestone brings little cause for celebration, as Fonner Park kicks off its 60th season in what might be its most uncertain time yet.
Friday was supposed to be opening day at the Grand Island horse track, but snow forced things back a day.
Weather may be the least of their worries, as Fonner Park carries what some see as a dying industry.
"I hate to leave but we might have to," Linda Hoffman said.
Grand Island is home and Fonner Park's where Linda has spent the past 35 winters on the horse racing circuit. But she wonders how many more years there will be.
She said, "I hope this year they figure out what we can do because otherwise we can't stay. Go somewhere or get out of the business."
Lincoln's old State Fair Park closed, although there is work to open a new track.
Omaha has only a few days of racing.
Columbus, another mainstay of the circuit, is still a question mark as to when its 14 days of racing will be held.
Fonner Park CEO Hugh Miner said, "In some ways, it doesn't speak well of the industry."
Miner said it may be the shortest season in Nebraska history. That benefits Fonner Park where season ticket sales are up, and even on a snow day people were calling to make plans to be in Grand Island.
Miner said, "For live racing, that puts Fonner in the spotlight and we think we'll have good attendance numbers this year."
But Fonner officials say they can't do it alone.
"There's no question about it – to have only 50 race days in the state, that's not enough."
Miner says there are more gambling options now than in 1953, which is why horsemen asked the legislature for video terminals in an effort to modernize racing and it nearly passed last year.
"One vote separated the industry from getting something that would've helped," Miner said.
The Hoffmans may go to Denver with Lincoln's demise, but they'd like to continue starting their year in Grand Island.
Linda said, "We have a house here, would be tough to leave."
And Fonner continues to hold its own in an uncertain industry.
Hugh Miner said, "We have worked hard to maintain racing here at Fonner Park and something the Fonner board and people are proud of what we've been able to do. It's our job to put on a good show and make sure we do this right."
Critics say attempts to expand gambling are a bailout for a dying industry. And they oppose video racing terminals, saying that will only encourage people to lose more money.
But horsemen say it's their best bet to keep running.
Fonner Park's 60th year begins Saturday, February 23 and continues to early May.