Fonner Park, Tampa Bay Downs Look To Extend Meets, As COVID-19 Delays Other Openings

Posted on: April 21, 2020, 09:50h. 

Last updated on: April 22, 2020, 09:01h.

The Nebraska Racing Commission (NRC) is scheduled to meet Wednesday and take up a request by Fonner Park to extend its current thoroughbred meet into next month.

Fonner Park Extension
Fonner Park and the Nebraska HBPA reached an agreement to run additional races at the Grand Island track. The state’s Racing Commission is scheduled to vote on the measure Wednesday.(Image: Fonner Park)

It comes after the Grand Island racetrack reached an agreement with the state’s Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) to run an extra 12 days. That would start on May 4 and end on May 31.

The meet is currently scheduled to end on April 29.

Since March 23, Fonner Park has raced without fans in the grandstand because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The track even switched from holding weekend cards to racing Mondays through Wednesdays to stand out more to bettors. The move, coupled with the fact that only a few other tracks are racing right now, has increased handle substantially.

According to a track press release, the daily average handle since March 23 has been more than $2.8 million, and that excludes the $7.2 million bet on April 7, when the track had a mandatory payout on a $4.1 million Pick 5 pool.

Those are remarkable figures for a track considered to be on the lower end of the racing scale in the US. Purses for Wednesday’s scheduled races range from $3,700 to $7,000. Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, meanwhile, is scheduled to run races on Friday with purses ranging from $17,200 to $62,000.

Fonner Important to Nebraska Horsemen

A lot of Fonner’s increased handle comes from out-of-state bettors. According to the Grand Island Independent, the track only receives about 3 percent of the money bet through interstate simulcasting, and, as NRC Director Tom Sage told, the state does not get any revenue from the out-of-state wagering.

Still, Sage said there’s a benefit to extending the meet.

“Fonner has been and is always very important to Nebraska racing, as they conducted the long meet in the state,” he said. “With the extension horses can stay in Nebraska helping the horsemen and the industry in the state.”

The commission staff does not have any issue with the proposed extension, though Sage added the commissioners, if they have any concerns, may bring them up Wednesday.

More Than ‘Sexy Handles’ to Consider

Fonner CEO Chris Kotulak said in the release that because of the COVID-19 guidelines, continuing horse racing at the track is “still very much a day-to-day prospect.” Still, he noted, as the handle increase indicates, the ability to race has given the tiny Nebraska track a huge spotlight.

Even with that extra attention, he remains pragmatic.

Fonner Park operates on a wickedly narrow profit margin,” Kotulak said. “What might seem like a successful spell of handle one week might only equate to survival or even a deficit another week. We cannot be swooned by sexy handles this year when we have to consider purse money for 2021 and the hundreds of thousands of dollars of expenses and repairs we face annually.”

He added that once other tracks resume racing, Fonner’s pari-mutuel handle will drop.

“My goal is not to simply make hay this year,” he added. I have a responsibility to Fonner Park, the horsemen, and the city of Grand Island, Neb., to remain viable for many years to come.”

Florida Track Also Considering Extension

Fonner isn’t the only track considering an extension, as some tracks scheduled to start horse racing in the coming weeks, including Churchill Downs in Kentucky and New York’s Belmont Park, have already announced their meets will not start on time. Earlier this week, Tampa Bay Downs indicated it’s considering asking Florida officials for more dates.

Tampa Bay Downs meet is currently scheduled to end May 3.

“Attention horsemen: We are seriously considering extending the meet. We need everyone to adhere to the protocols for COVID-19 that were handed out to trainers and posted on the backside,” the track said in its overnight notes to horsemen for Friday’s races. “Make sure anyone running a horse is wearing a mask and gloves. Only two persons per horse in the paddock, which includes the trainer.”