Live horse racing at Fonner Park is important to Grand Island, as it has been going on annually for more than 65 years.
Racing will resume in February, and with fans allowed at the track.
That is good news for Fonner Park, for horse owners, trainers, jockeys and track employees, and for the people who enjoy going to watch the races in Grand Island every year.
Last year, the meet started as normal on Feb. 21 and fans began attending the races on Friday, Saturday and Sunday each week
On March 14 a large crowd was gathering when the day’s races were called off because of track conditions. The coronavirus pandemic was just taking hold of the nation, and Fonner was one of the few sporting events still going on. Fonner got racing in the next day despite less-than-ideal conditions.
But then Mayor Roger Steele closed the facility due to the pandemic on March 16.
That would have been a big blow to Fonner Park and its employees, as well as the horse racing industry, but Fonner CEO Chris Kotulak was able to negotiate with Steele a solution that had Fonner continue the races without spectators.
Fonner, the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent Protective Association and the Nebraska Thoroughbred Breeders Association came to an agreement to allow racing on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
This was good for those making a living from horse racing and it was also good for Fonner because simulcast betting could provide the track some income to sustain the operation for that year.
Fonner’s simulcast signal was sent all across the country and to such distant places as Australia, England and Chile, giving the Grand Island track some exposure it had never had and boosting simulcast betting, from which Fonner received a small percentage.
The Monday-through-Wednesday schedule of live racing continued through the end of April and then an additional 12 days of racing were scheduled as a second live meet in May.
Tracks across the country were closed, but racing was going on weekly in Grand Island — without spectators, although fans were able during the races to stay in their cars, which were parked between the racetrack and the grandstand.
Now, when the 2021 live racing season opens Feb. 19 for the 68th year of horse racing at Fonner, the races will go on with the only limitation being a 75% capacity rule.
Fans will be required to follow social distancing guidelines and they will be expected to wear face masks.
Some of the tables will be removed and the 75% limitation will be implemented in all interior sections of the track, including the clubhouse, Turf Club and Skyline.