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68th season of horse racing kicks off Friday at Fonner Park

68th season of horse racing kicks off Friday at Fonner Park

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Fonner Park will have a good number of horses on hand Friday when the 68th season of thoroughbred racing kicks off in Grand Island.

“We received more applications this year than we have in recent years,” said Chris Kotulak, Fonner’s chief executive officer. More stalls have been allocated this year than in recent years.

“But there are still some horses we are lacking that are going to arrive from warmer climates,” Kotulak said. Those horses are expected this week.

Horses and horsemen enjoyed above-average weather in Grand Island in January. That, of course, has changed in recent weeks.

“But we are all-systems-go to open on Feb. 19,” Kotulak said.

Beginning with Friday’s 2 p.m. post time, seating will be limited to 75% capacity in all of the interior sections. Spectators will be required to wear a mask upon entering. The mask must remain on unless you are seated or are drinking or eating.

The limited capacity and mask requirement will continue “until further notice,” he said. “And I have no plans to change that at this point.”

Kotulak is well aware that Grand Island’s mask requirement will expire on the Tuesday after the opening weekend of racing.

“Now that doesn’t mean we’re going to change,” he said. “We might just keep marching on.”

Kotulak is not sure what attendance will be like on Friday or Sunday of opening weekend.

But he is certain that “we will be as full as we possibly can at 75% capacity” on Saturday.

Kotulak always is confident about the turnout on the 11 Saturdays each year.

“Fonner Park is one of the very few racetracks in the nation that routinely sells out for every Saturday of their racing season,” he said.

Fonner is fresher and safer, Kotulak said, because of a new GPS ionization feature, which has been added to all the HVAC systems in the Clubhouse, Turf Club, keno area and Finish Line Lounge.

A year ago, four 15-ton remote terminal units and a Venmar Fresh Air system were added. Spectators enjoyed those benefits for only a few weeks because of limitations brought about by COVID-19.

The improvements will ensure clean, healthy air.

“Guests and employees are now in a much safer interior environment to work, eat and enjoy themselves,” Kotulak wrote in a post on the Fonner Park website.

He is grateful to Monte Hehnke at Jerry’s Sheet Metal, Heating and Cooling for making those improvements at a discount to Fonner Park.

Because of the pandemic, the racetrack stretched its standard 11 weeks last year into a 15-week season, totaling 40 days of racing.

On March 23, the track moved from Friday through Sunday to Monday through Wednesday races, sending horses around the 5/8-mile mile track with no live spectators. In-person fans weren’t allowed for the duration of the meet.

“The change in race days and a move to a 4 p.m. first post was made to achieve maximum exposure with the least amount of competition for the wagering dollar,” Kotulak wrote in a recap of the 2020 meet.

“On the first day of the amended format, an all-time, all-sources mutuel handle was set with over $1.3 million wagered on the Fonner Park races,” the recap says.

In the immediate weeks to follow, several racetracks, advanced-deposit wagering and wagering services “spanning the world began to take the Fonner Park signal,” says the 2020 recap.

“There were four mandatory payout days of the popular Dinsdale Late Pick 5 Jackpot wager. The largest handle of the season came on April 7, when the total Pick 5 pool exceeded $4.1 million, spurring a total handle of $7.2 million on the day,” the recap says.

After March 23, TVG presented live coverage of every Fonner Park race except for Memorial Day.

“The light shined heavily on little Fonner Park for over two months and we proved that we could safely and wisely conduct and maintain our racing product,” Kotulak reports in the summary. “I am particularly proud that the world learned we are not a bush track. We are certainly small, we are not Saratoga or Santa Anita, but we are a tidy, efficient, well-run racetrack. And we proved that we really are the little racetrack that could.”

At the end of the live racing meet, the total handle hit $107,189,273. The average daily mutuel handle during the no-spectator term of racing was $3.6 million. In 2019, the 12-month total Fonner Park mutuel handle for the year was slightly more than $12 million.

In the 2021 condition stakes book, Kotulak tells horsemen, “We have chosen to increase our 2021 purses roughly 10% from our 2020 starting point. Fonner Park will allocate purse money in a gradual and reasonable manner and we intend to nurse off the 2020 windfall through 2021 and into 2022. We will eagerly introduce casino gaming revenue allocated for purses whenever it may become available.

“However, having lost eight of our 11 Saturday afternoons in 2020 and a loss of three of our biggest on-track handle days, we lost crucial operations revenue,” he wrote.

But he expects a successful 2021. Profitable Saturdays at Fonner Park “allow us to make facility improvements for our horsemen and for our dedicated horseplayers,” he wrote.

“The incredible ‘Fonner Vibe’ we (Fonner horsemen, horseplayers and employees) created throughout 2019 carried into 2020; we were up in on-track handle all three of the Saturdays that we raced,” Kotulak wrote in the 2021 condition book. “With help from everyone involved I fully expect to begin 2021 with tremendous gusto. I am equally excited to present some of the popular promotions that make Fonner Park a success, plus roll out some new promotions to promote Fon horse racing — and benefit you and your horses.

“The image of horse racing from those outside the world of horse racing has become increasingly scrutinized. Everyone involved with Fonner Park and horse racing must please do their part to allow us to be seen and understood in the best, positive light,” Kotulak wrote.

“The 360 Gentle Touch (360 GT), Pro-Cush or other similar whips are required of our jockeys for our Fonner Park races. Additionally, the 2020 Fall meet at Santa Anita Park saw zero catastrophic horse injuries. The 2020 Emerald Downs season, with 391 races, also had zero catastrophic injuries. Zero can be a beautiful number. There is no reason, you as a trainer or owner, and Fonner racetrack, cannot collectively strive for the same outstanding results.”

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