GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Under the threat of legal action from the state, the Nebraska Racing Commission delayed a decision on whether to permit slot-like machines that allow patrons to gamble on historical horse races.
Last October, the five-member group, which regulates horse racing in Nebraska, agreed to allow the machines at Fonner Park in Grand Island.
The commission rescinded that vote Wednesday after Attorney General Doug Peterson said the October meeting violated open meeting rules. He also said the commission lacked the legal authority to add the machines because they constitute a new form of gambling.
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In historical horse racing, gamblers can bet on previously run races. The identities of the horses and riders are changed to guard against bettors recalling the outcomes of old races.
The group heard emotional testimony from representatives of the horse racing industry, which has been in decline for years because of competition from other forms of gambling.
“I support anything that can help out the industry,” said Mike Newlin, executive director of Omaha Exposition and Racing, which runs a nine-day racing card each year in Omaha. “Omaha, in particular, is facing four casinos in our front yard.”
Gambling opponents compared the racing machines to crack cocaine.
“They are systematically designed to prey on an explicit weakness and addiction,” said Nate Grasz, the policy director for the Nebraska Family Alliance.
Assistant Attorney General Laura Nigro said Peterson’s office will not defend the commission if it casts what Peterson believes is an illegal vote to approve the games.
“As much as the commission wants to approve historic horse racing, it cannot,” she said. “That must be decided by the Legislature or the people of Nebraska.”
Commission Chairman Dennis Lee, an Omaha attorney, said the group will take public comment in writing until Feb. 1 and schedule another meeting after that to decide whether to allow the machines. No date has been set for that meeting.
Fonner Park representatives argued that the commission is well within its authority, which, according to Nebraska statute, gives it the power to regulate pari-mutuel betting in the state.
“We’re asking you to look at only what the law says you can do today,” said Dan Waters, an attorney representing Fonner Park.
The horse racing season at Fonner Park runs 31 days, from Feb. 22 to May 4.