Nebraska was once a major player in live horse racing. The track season would rotate between 5-6 tracks around the state. However, other gaming and entertainment ventures came along and put a huge dent in the industry. Eventually, some tracks faded into memory – Aksarben in Omaha and Atokad in South Sioux City were among them.
However, Grand Island’s Fonner Park has remained viable. The track in central Nebraska has offered horse racing since 1954. The races may not have the horses they used or the draw the crowds like they once did, but people attending seem to be hardcore horse fans.
We took in a day of races recently at Fonner Park. The race season runs from mid-February to May 2nd this year. Races take place Friday-Sunday. The nine-race cards won’t feature Kentucky Derby-quality equines, but they provide the fans with some fun and excitement.
You can tell how horse racing has changed through the years as soon as you walk in the main floor. The betting windows are mostly closed. There were 5-7 cashiers taking bets during our visit. Lisa’s dad recently underwent a double lung transplant. They received the call for the operation at 3 a.m. on March 3rd (3-3-3). So, everyone told us we had to bet the number 3 horse in the third race. We visited the third cashier from our entrance. We took him to “Show,” or finish third.
Special Grant started out the gate strong. He was challenging the leader most of the way. He was stayed in second until the horses came around the final turn. Unfortunately, the nine-year-old didn’t have what it took that day and faded into the crowd of seven horses. He ended up finishing fifth. Well, I am glad all went well for the father-in-law, but 3 was not our lucky number this day.
It was fun watching the horses run the track. It was a fast track that day. As the horses would break out of the starting gate, they would spook the water fowl lounging on the pond inside the track, and the birds would take off. Of course, some didn’t care and stayed put. I’m sure the birds are used to the noise.
Fonner Park likely cannot survive just on live racing. So, the park does have simulcast betting. People can wager on races at other tracks, such as Gulfstream. Keno lottery (a big thing among Nebraska gamblers) is available at the park. I once won $150 at keno. Then, a friend and I went to one of the Native American casinos north of Omaha to play some more. Um, I gladly returned that money to the coffers…and then some. It was a fun experience?
Grand Island has its events center located across from the track. The Heartland Events Center is home to an indoor foorball team (Nebraska Danger), as well as concerts and conferences.
Fonner Park is home to the Nebraska State Fair. The grounds around the track provide enough space for all that the state fair offers.
We grabbed lunch between races. The food was decent. We were disappointed with the service. The server was nice and apologetic, but it appeared she may have been the only one on the floor. She was busy, so my guess is someone may have called in sick.
We enjoyed our time at Fonner Park. It was a fun way to spend a sunny and warm Sunday afternoon.