By Bill Finley
Fonner Park, the Grand Island, Nebraska track that has seen record handle over the last several weeks, may stay open past the scheduled shutdown of the current meet. Horsemen and track management are in talks to extend the meet through the month of May. Currently, the meet is scheduled to end Apr. 29.
“We are currently in talks with Fonner Park in hopes we will be able to run there through the month of May,” said Nebraska HBPA President Bob Moser, Jr. “I am optimistic. We've had really good discussions and I would like to believe it is just a formality with [Fonner CEO] Chris [Kotulak] talking to his board and getting it approved and my getting it approved by our board. I think Chris and I are seeing eye to eye on this right now.”
Kotulak was slightly less optimistic about the meet continuing, but said it was definitely a possibility.
“We are considering the feasability of being able to extend the meet,” Kotulak said. “We're trying to consider the dollars and cents of it. I am hoping to have an answer by the end of the week.”
The 2020 Nebraska horse racing dates call for racing to move in May to Horseman's Park in Omaha, but management there has announced that the 2020 meet will not be held due to the coronavirus. An extended Fonner meet would fill the void. The status of the meet at Columbus Races, which is scheduled to open May 29 and close June 21, has yet to be determined.
In March, Fonner management told horsemen that the meet was going to be shut down due to the coronavirus, but a two-week extension of the meet was agreed upon on an experimental basis. Management shifted the dates from a Friday-through-Sunday schedule to Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, in hopes that that would create an increase in betting. The experiment was a success as Fonner, a track where the handle normally topped out and $500,000 or $600,000, soon started producing daily handles in the $2 million-plus neighborhood. With the increase in handle, Fonner agreed to stay open for the remainder of the scheduled meet.
But Kotulak has continually told those celebrating Fonner's success that it is important to look beyond the raw numbers. Prior to closing the stands to fans, the majority of the betting on Fonner races came from on-track customers, handle that the track does not have to share with ADW operators. Now, virtually all of the handle is coming from ADWs, and Fonner only gets 3% of the handle. For that reason, Kotulak said Fonner needs to handle about $3 million a day to be able to pay purses, which average about $50,000 per card.
“We would love to be able to continue to provide this option for the horsemen if it makes good business sense for Fonner Park,” Kotulak said. “We will look at whether or not Fonner Park can afford to put on a show in light of the expense of the racing operations.”
Excluding a day in which handle climbed to $7.2 million thanks to a mandatory payout-day on the track's Pick 5 wager, Fonner is averaging about $2.5 million a day in handle since shifting its schedule. But handle continues to grow as more and more horseplayers have gravitated to what, currently, is one of only five Thoroughbred racetracks operating in the U.S. On Monday, Fonner handled $3,732,230, its second best day this year and in its history.
“I'm not a little bit surprised, I am absolutely surprised,” Moser said of the handle figures. “I cannot believe how successful this has been. That being said, we are in a very unique situation where we are the only form of gaming a lot of people have. I think you have a lot of traditional casino goers who are re-discovering horse racing.”
Of the tracks running, both Oaklawn and Tampa Bay Downs, are scheduled to close the weekend of May 2. With even less competition, Fonner's handle figures to continue to grow.