Despite record-breaking cold and 10 inches of snow on the ground less than a week before opening day of the horse racing season at Fonner Park, crews had the track in racing condition and turnout was good, said Chris Kotulak, Fonner Park chief executive officer.
It was a good weekend for Grand Island after a year of economic disruption caused by a pandemic that forced the cancellation of events that would have attracted people and dollars to the community.
Along with the opening day of the racing season, Grand Island hosted the Nebraska Cheer and Dance Championships at Fonner Park from Wednesday through Saturday. Both events brought thousands of people back to Fonner.
While the horse racing and the cheer and dance events successfully navigated the city’s directed health measures, the weather didn’t cooperate.
“We obviously had to fight Mother Nature. We had a plan and the plan worked out and we had three days of racing,” Kotulak said.
Last year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fonner held a racing season with no crowds. This year, the crowds are back, but at 75% capacity with face masks required.
Kotulak said a good crowd showed up for opening day Friday.
On Saturday, he said the grandstands and concourse reached 75% capacity. He said a good crowd showed up Sunday, too.
“It is a great way to open,” Kotulak said. “It beats the heck out of canceling.”
He said many people approached him during the weekend and thanked him not only for having racing, but also for conducting racing last year during the height of the pandemic.
“People were grateful that we were back to racing with people in the grandstand,” Kotulak said. “It was a collaborative effort between the horsemen and everyone involved to pull this off.”
Before Friday’s opening day, the track and the training track were closed for several weeks because of the weather. That didn’t allow trainers and jockeys to exercise and train horses until race day.
“That is a significant impact to a horse trainer preparing their horses to race,” Kotulak said.
“We knew, with the temperatures the way that they were, that we couldn’t take the insulating blanket of snow off the racetrack in these intensely cold days for fear that the track would freeze.”
Under the plan developed by Kotulak and the track maintenance crew and the jockeys, snow was not removed until Friday morning.
Crews had to get the track ready by 2 p.m., which was post time of the first race.
On Saturday, “we had to allow Mother Nature, the sun, to help thaw out the track because it did freeze overnight,” Kotulak said. “So, there was no training Saturday, and, on Sunday, it was the same song and there was no training because we wanted to allow the sun to warm the track” so tractors and harrows didn’t damage it.
“We believe we will be able to open up the main track for training all week long,” Kotulak said on Sunday.
With both the main track and the training track closed prior to race day, trainers only had a six-horse equine training wheel, located in the Big Red Barn, to keep the horses in condition, Kotulak said.
Along with a good crowd during opening weekend, parimutuel betting from across the country also was a pleasant surprise, he said.
Last year during the pandemic, Fonner Park was open to racing when tracks were closed across the country. That helped bring in needed revenue to the track.
“The question was ‘would those people return this year because all the tracks were up and running?’” Kotulak said. But, the combined mutuel handle that was bet on us during the weekend at Fonner and out-of-state was encouraging.
He said it was “terrific to see the support of the people who came out.”
“We virtually had zero issues with the mask mandate we have,” Kotulak said.
Kotulak said Fonner Park will continue to require masks when attending the races after Grand Island’s mask mandate ends Tuesday.
“People will be expected to wear a mask until further notice,” he said.