Harrah’s Unveils Nebraska Racetrack Plan, $75M Casino Development in Columbus

Posted on: July 2, 2021, 08:05h. 

Last updated on: March 2, 2023, 12:02h.

Harrah’s is coming to Nebraska by way of the Columbus horse racetrack. The casino is coming soon to the Ag Park facility.

Harrah's Nebraska casino Columbus Lincoln
Spectators watch a horse race in Nebraska at the Columbus racetrack in 2015. Harrah’s is set to bring a new attraction — casino gambling — to the venue late next year. (Image: Lincoln Journal Star)

Columbus Exposition and Racing (CER), owner of the track, announced today that it has selected Harrah’s and its parent organization, Caesars Entertainment, to build and operate the casino. Live horse racing has been part of the Columbus community for more than 75 years.

Caesars says it will invest $75 million to refresh the property and incorporate a small casino space featuring 400 slot machines and approximately 20 table games. The casino will additionally come with a sportsbook, restaurant, and retail space. The venue is expected to open in late 2022. 

Tom Jackson, managing partner of CER, said Caesars was picked because of the brand recognition of Harrah’s and its long, proven track record of operating regional casinos. 

Nebraska voters last November easily passed a ballot referendum initiative to legalize commercial casino gambling at the state’s six horse racetracks. 

Multi-Million Dollar Racing Rescue 

Three tracks — Lincoln Race Course, Horsemen’s Park in Omaha, and Atokad Downs in South Sioux City — have partnered with WarHorse Gaming for their casinos. WarHorse is a subsidiary of Ho-Chunk Inc. and the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. 

Fonner Park is going with Elite Casino Resorts for its development. The Iowa-based casino firm owns and operates three gaming properties in its home state. 

The Nebraska Initiative that voters passed places a 20 percent tax on gross gaming revenue (GGR) at the horse racetrack casinos. Of that revenue, 70 percent will be directed to the state’s Property Tax Credit Cash Fund, five percent split equally with the Compulsive Gamblers Assistance Fund and General Fund, and the remaining 25 percent will stay in the county where the casino is located. 

Harrah’s $75 million undertaking is minor compared to some of the other already-announced Nebraska casino plans. For instance, WarHorse is planning to spend $220 million on the Lincoln casino alone.

Columbus, of course, is much smaller than the Lincoln capital. Columbus is named after Columbus, Ohio, because of its early settlers moving from there to establish a new town in Nebraska that was proposed to be on the route of the transcontinental railroad. 

Horse racing is a dying industry across the nation, with countless tracks now closed across the US. However, the sport has long been a staple in Nebraska, and voters believe bringing casinos to the struggling tracks will reignite racing. More people should result in larger purses and more race days. 

Harrah’s says it will resurface the racetrack’s one-mile horse track, an expense that is included in the total $75 million budget.

Sports Betting Component

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) in May signed legislation that authorizes sports betting. Tribal and commercial casinos, as well as horse racetracks, can apply for an in-person retail sportsbook license.

Mobile betting is not permitted, nor is wagering on college sports that involves Nebraska schools. 

In line with the forthcoming slot machines and table games tax, GGR from sports betting will be subjected to a 20 percent tax.