While it’s true the weather affected the numbers this season at Horsemen’s Park, bigger storm clouds are looming on the horizon.
General Manager Mike Newlin says the nationwide legalization of sports gambling could cast a dark shadow over the Omaha facility. Sooner than you might expect.
“I think it could be legalized as early as January in Iowa,’’ he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw it implemented at the three Council Bluffs casinos by March Madness.’’
Newlin quickly points out those casinos are located only 10 minutes from the front door of Horsemen’s Park .
“You’ve got to hand it to Iowa for being so progressive,’’ he said. “Nebraska was one of the first states to have pari-mutuel wagering and is now one of the last states to benefit from any expanded gambling.’’
It’s a frustrating time for Newlin, who has done everything possible to make sure live racing continues in Omaha. The track just completed its nine-day meet — the most it has ever run — but severe weather kept the numbers down.
Racing seven days in July last year, the temperatures hovered in the 80s and average daily attendance was 6,214.
Racing nine days from mid-May to early June this year — and only one of those days could be categorized as pleasant — the average attendance was 5,166.
“We had three days in the low 60s with a chance of rain, three days over 92 with humidity and two days over 100 degrees,’’ he said. “The weather cost us an average of more than 1,000 fans per day over last year.’’
That attendance also affected the mutuel handle as fewer bettors means less wagering. It also means a dip in concession revenue, another important source of income.
“When it’s as hot as it was for most of our racing days, fans don’t want to drink a beer,’’ Newlin said. “If they come out at all.’’
The general manager said three things are needed for a successful meet: enough horses to fill races, enough jockeys to ride those horses and decent weather.
Running immediately after Grand Island’s Fonner Park bolstered that first point. There were 456 entries in 2018, compared to 295 last year.
Having enough jockeys wasn’t a major issue, though injuries suffered by several riders at Fonner did cut down the number. Still, it wasn’t enough to have a major impact on the meet.
Which brings us back to that third point, the weather. Newlin moved the dates from mid-summer to late spring, but Mother Nature played a trick on him with record-breaking heat.
“The frustrating part is that we’re so reliant on the weather,’’ he said. “And it’s the one thing we can do absolutely nothing about.’’
Even the weather takes a back seat to the impact of Iowa’s expected addition of sports gambling that could be in play before next year’s live meet.
“I honestly feel our revenue could drop by 30 to 50 percent,’’ Newlin said. “If we drop that much, it would be incredibly detrimental not only to us but all of the state race tracks.’’
He added that the fans who wager on football are the same ones who wager on horse races. And there are only so many gambling dollars out there.
“Our fall numbers are the lowest because those simulcasts are happening during football season,’’ Newlin said. “Once we get to the Super Bowl, then our numbers pick up.’’
As for Nebraska’s acceptance of expanded gambling, it probably won’t happen anytime soon. Gov. Pete Ricketts has voiced his opposition and has been a strong supporter of the anti-gaming group Gambling With The Good Life.
Although Ricketts applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s sports betting ruling on constitutional merits, he made his viewpoint clear at a press conference when he said “sports betting is still illegal here in Nebraska and we have no plans to change that.’’
It’s possible that change in the near future could come if Democratic candidate Bob Krist defeats Ricketts in the November gubernatorial election or an expanded gambling initiative reaches a statewide vote. That second item would probably mean thousands and thousands of signatures on petitions.
“Nebraska has had its hands tied behind its back for 23 years, since the casinos opened up,’’ Newlin said. “I’m in disbelief that it’s gone on this long, with so much revenue going across the river.’’
He’s convinced that once the three casinos add sports betting, they’ll also add horse and dog race wagering. Only one of the casinos offers that right now.
“It will be nearly impossible for Horsemen’s Park to compete,’’ Newlin said.
While the expanded gambling could lead to an uncertain future for the state’s racing industry, Newlin isn’t even certain of his own future. The Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and Omaha Exposition and Racing — which runs the races at Horsemen’s Park and in Lincoln — will elect new board members in September. They will decide whether Newlin, an Omaha Benson graduate who has been on the job since August 2015, stays.
“If I’m still here, I would recommend that we run the same dates next year,’’ he said. “Operationally we did a great job of running our meet, but the weather killed us.’’
Newlin said luring new fans to the sport — following the end of live racing at the popular Ak-Sar-Ben race track in 1995 — remains a work in progress.
“I think Omaha lost an entire generation of potential fans when Ak-Sar-Ben closed,’’ he said. “Reviving this sport will take time, and I just hope we get that time.’’