SOUTH SIOUX CITY -- Saturday afternoon's horse races at Atokad Park were like other horse races: people spent a lot of time milling around, talking, grabbing food and beverages, staring at race sheets, giddily placing small bets. A tiny minority of attendees sported traditional, dressy racetrack garb.
Then, at 3 p.m., most drifted closer to the track, as though some magnet had been turned on. For just over 12 seconds, the attention of hundreds was fixed on the track, as three horses -- Red Rock Bluff, Life of Crime and Chalk Line -- bolted down the furlong (1/8 mile) track.
The winner was Life of Crime, a 9-year-old dark brown mare owned by Robert Sutherland and ridden by Chris Fackler. His 12.3 second furlong set a new record for the track, the previous record being 12.8 seconds.
This was the first of three races run at Atokad Saturday. The second, with a 3:40 p.m. post time, was won by Fantastic Warrior, a 3-year-old dark brown gelding ridden by Ricardo Martinez and owned by Adriel Gonzalez. The third, with a post time of 4:20, was won by Cowboy's Mark L, a 6-year-old mare ridden by Jake Olesiak and owned by Ronald Strode.
This was to be the only race to be run at Atokad Park this year. The track, owned by Ho-Chunk Inc., must run the single-day races every year in order to comply with Nebraska law.
Horse racing is the oldest form of gambling to be allowed by the Nebraska Constitution, which was amended in 1934 to permit bets at licensed tracks. The Constitution was amended again in 1958, 1967 and 1988 to allow bingo, lotteries and simulcast horse races, respectively.
But casino gambling remains illegal under Nebraska law.
During the 2016 election cycle, Ho-Chunk supported a petition initiative to legalize casino gambling at the state's horse tracks. Ho-Chunk has long hoped to build a casino on the 20 or 30 acres it owns near the track, but the initiative failed when Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale's office rejected 31,600 of the 120,000 signatures.
Now, Ho-Chunk has its sights set on another horse track-casino ballot initiative, this time for the 2020 ballot. The Winnebago tribal corporation is working on a petition drive to get the question of casino gambling at horse tracks on the ballot in 2020.
Ho-Chunk CEO Lance Morgan said Saturday afternoon that he would like to see more races at the track and invest more into the facility, but horse racing being prohibitively costly, it wouldn't be doable without the additional revenue of an attached casino.
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"If there was casino gambling, we'd be able to race a lot more and afford to do it," he said. "Horse racing is sort of on life support in Nebraska, and if you can figure out a way to get more money into the purses, then more people will spend the time and money to raise the horses. It's a very expensive business to be in."
Indeed, there are signs that horse racing in Nebraska is not doing well. The Columbus Telegram reported Tuesday that Ag Park, a track there, may be on the brink of closure.
Morgan said that the horse tracks in Lincoln, Omaha, Grand Island, Hastings, and Columbus are all more or less unanimous in their support of the casino initiative and the windfall that casino gambling could bring to the state's tracks.
"We'd not only have races, but we'd also build a casino facility here, with whatever was legally authorized," he said. Morgan said Ho-Chunk is prepared to invest "tens of millions of dollars" in the Atokad casino project, if casinos are legalized in 2020.
For now, the 2020 ballot question remains in its infancy.
"We just have started the process of figuring out who our team's going to be, who our lawyer's going to be, who our signature-gatherers are going to be," Morgan said. "We're putting together the strategy right now. We've got two years."
But Morgan said that, by his reckoning, there's a good chance Nebraska voters will support horse track casinos.
"We've done multiple surveys over the years, and if it gets on the ballot, and if it's related to property tax relief, then people will vote for it," he said.
Morgan also argues that the state is losing hundreds of millions in potential revenue by letting gamblers flow to neighboring states, which have legal casino gambling. His response to possible voters' objections to casinos -- particularly the argument that casinos could foster compulsive gambling -- is that Nebraskans will still gamble, and other states will reap the benefits.
"I would say that it's not very hard to cross the river and gamble if you want to," he said.