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A timeline: Fonner Park's first 50 years

A timeline: Fonner Park's first 50 years

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Pre-race days — Thirty area businessmen and farmers put down $100 apiece and articles of corporation for the track are drawn up. The group makes the investment after traveling to Columbus to take a look at the agricultural grounds in that city. By 1956, about 250 families have a financial interest in the grounds with over $350,000 invested. Area cattle feeder Ray T. Baxter is the president of the association that also includes a 30-man board of directors.

April 1953 — A corporation known as the Hall County Livestock Improvement Association purchases 80 acres of land approximately one mile east of Stolley Park's road junction with Highway 281. An aerial photo titled "Little Ak-Sar-Ben" shows 10 barns that are capable of holding more than 400 horses and a recently completed Livestock Exhibition building. A paddock that will house veterinary officials and serve as a jockey quarters is planned. The grandstand will seat approximately 2,000 fans. North and south starting areas will be included on a 5/8-mile track. A 20-acre parking lot will also be part of the project.

September 1953 — The track announces it will break its maiden by hosting the Old Reliable Hereford Show and Sale in the livestock exhibition building. A 15-day horse racing season is scheduled to start on April 29 of the next year.

April 29, 1954 — Fonner Park holds its first day of racing. An estimated 3,000 fans show up on a cold, wet and windy day.

1955 — Crowds of around 5,000 turn out on a daily basis for 18 days of live racing. Over 1,000 applications were received for stall space.

Jan. 5, 1956 — A new grandstand that can accommodate up to 3,000 fans has been enclosed on the back and north sides. Twelve barns with a capacity of 40 horses or 80 cattle each are ready to be filled.

Nov. 1, 1957 — An $87,137 contract for glassing of the grandstand was awarded to Diamond Engineering Company of Grand Island. The contract includes a new row of box seats. A second contract calls for a canopy that will adjoin the back of the plant to the grandstand to be built. The project is expected to cost $71,622. "When these improvements are completed Grand Island will have the finest and most modern racing plant between Omaha and California and will be the only glass-enclosed plant in the central United States," then-general manager Al Swihart said.

Dec. 17, 1959 — August L. "Gus" Fonner, for whom Fonner Park is named, dies at age 86. Fonner donated the original land so the racetrack could be launched.

Nov. 4, 1961 — A mezzanine floor is scheduled to be added to the grandstand at the track in the spring. The addition includes 53 mutuel windows that should ease overcrowding on the ground floor. The cost for the project is $70,000.

June 23, 1962 — The track announces plans to build two new barns and enlarge old barns. The $70,000 project will give the track 120 new stalls and increase horse capacity to 764.

Aug. 8, 1963 — A new barn that will be a duplicate of two horse structures that were built last year is planned. The $33,500 project will enable the track to stall 800 horses. Plans are also under way to redecorate the 4-H building, paint barns and "beautify the park in general."

Jan. 11, 1966 — Construction is progressing on a $287,000 addition to the south end of the track grandstand. The 151-foot addition will seat 1,400 and raise capacity to 3,900. Office space, a paddock area and a jockey's quarters are added as part of the project.

Jan. 15, 1970 — A multi-purpose building that that can accommodate 280 horses is nearing completion. The $500,000 complex includes a quarter-mile indoor training track that is 26 feet wide. "No other indoor thoroughbred training facility of this size can be found in this part of the nation," then-general manager Al Swihart said.

Nov. 12, 1971 — The longest thoroughbred racing season in history, 132 days, is tentatively announced by the Nebraska State Racing Commission. After setting live-meet records for attendance (165,411) and mutuel handle ($8,232,905) in 1971, Fonner Park is scheduled to open on March 3. Racing is slated to continue through April 29.

Sept. 19, 1972 — A major grandstand expansion that is expected to cost $400,000 is announced by the track. When finished, a clubhouse section that can accommodate 640 fans will be the latest addition. A story about the project notes that "it is anticipated that the entire clubhouse section will be completely carpeted." The track's mezzanine and lower-floor concourse will also be extended to the north. There is also talk of offering valet car parking service.

Nov. 4, 1972 — Work gets under way on a new $400,000 clubhouse at the track. The addition is the fourth major building project at the track and was added at the same time as a computerized bet totaler that recorded wagering.

March 1, 1973 — A 100-foot extension of the grandstand's north end gives the track a clubhouse that will accommodate 600 fans. Forty new parimutuel windows are included in the expansion that enables the track to handle 10,000 fans.

April 13, 1976 — The track makes its largest contribution to civic and charitable causes by donating $273,980. The track also announces that it paid almost $730,000 in taxes during the preceding year. A newspaper photo shows actor Robert Taylor checking out a TV screen that displays race odds. Taylor is a Nebraska native who starred in movies like "Tip On a Dead Jockey" (1957) and "Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows” (1968).

Aug. 26, 1976 — Construction is under way on the third level of the track's grandstand. The level will contain bleacher seating.

Oct. 2, 1976 — The track announces the hiring of Bruce Swihart as administrative assistant.

March 10, 1977 — Black Ticket pays an astounding $520.40 to win. That payoff for a $2 ticket is the 24th highest win price ever paid. Black Ticket paid $218 to place and $31.20 to show.

March 2, 1978 — Fonner Park begins its 25th season of racing. General Manager Al Swihart says: "More people will be at Fonner Park in a week than attended the entire first meeting. The principle's satyed the same — Make everybody happy." It is also announced that more than $1 million in purse money will be awarded for the first time in 1978.

July 12, 1978 — The track is pleased to announce that over $61,000 in donations was made to various projects through the fiscal year.

Jan. 11, 1979 — A petition supporting Sunday racing is scheduled to be circulated in Grand Island. The drive is being organized by Tom Dexter, a Grand Island resident who doesn't want his freedom to go the track on Sunday taken away "by a small few that feel we should sit at home on Sunday.”

January 1979 — Construction continues a multi-purpose arena on the east side of the track grounds is under way thanks to a $100,000 donation by longtime Grand Island residents Mr. and Mrs. B.L. Thompson. The remaining cost of the building — $250,000 — will be paid by the track. Thompson was the founder of the Thompson Candy Co. and was also a horse enthusiast. The building will be known as the Thompson Arena.

Feb. 27, 1979 — Track officials expect the addition of eight Sunday race cards to be a big boost. The biggest improvement made at the track is new stadium seating in the reserved section. The 1,543 box and grandstand seats replace the old chair arrangement.

March 12, 1979 — An on-track crowd of 7,460 attends the first Sunday card offered at the track. The Grand Island Ministerial Association plans to fight Sunday racing in 1980.

April 2, 1980 — For the second day, jockeys refused to ride because of track conditions they deemed unsafe.

Dec. 4, 1980 — The Hall County Livestock Improvement Association has no immediate plans to appeal a court ruling that upheld Grand Island's vote to discontinue Sunday horse racing. Lancaster County district judge William Blue had ruled in favor of a state law allowing cities to prohibit Sunday racing by election. Grand Island voters in the May primary decided to prohibit Sunday racing at the track, even though the Nebraska State Racing Commission had approved Sunday dates.

Jan. 14, 1981 — Legislation to take the right of local voters to approve or reject Sunday racing was introduced by Sen. Howard Peterson of Grand Island. The bill draws immediate opposition from the Rev. Robert Wade of the Grand Island Ministerial Association. Two weeks later, then-general manager Al Swihart warns that Fonner Park will soon close its doors if Sunday racing isn't allowed. A study says the track will lose $38,000 in 1981 by not having Sunday racing. That figure was expected to grow to $217,000 by 1984.

Feb. 20, 1983 — Longtime Fonner Park general manager Al Swihart dies. He served as the track's top man for over a quarter of a century and oversaw the track's many improvements and significant growth. Hugh Miner Jr. is named as Miner's replacement in March.

April 16, 1983 — A record on-track mutuel handle of $1,204,660 is recorded. An on-track crowd of 9,635 — the fourth-highest turnout in track history — created a record-setting day at the mutuel window. The on-track attendance record of 10,387 was set on April 2, 1977.

March 16, 1985 — The track refund record was set when a gate malfunction prompted $84,184 in refunds.

Feb. 18, 1988 — The track is ready to simulcast its races to Omaha and Lincoln if a truck arrives in time. The first truck carrying the simulcast equipment was totalled after it rolled en route to Grand Island. A second truck was deemed unusable after it slid into a ditch near Cincinnati.

April 17, 1988 — Eight weeks of live racing while simulcasting for the first time have led to decreases and increases. The overall daily attendance for racing in Nebraska increased 59.1 percent compared to the year before while the mutuel handle is up 56.7 percent. On track, the mutuel handle is down 25.8 percent while attendance is down 15.5 percent. Simulcasting draws mixed reaction from Jack Jensen, a Roseland native who has watched horse racing in the state decline. "It's been hard for someone like me who loves racing to see it go down the tubes the last few years,” Jensen said. "The jury's still out on this one.”

May 19, 1988 — Track officials plan to spend $160,000 this summer on safety improvements that include banked turns, a new guard rail and a resurfaced track. A drainage lake will also be built on the infield.

March 13, 1990 — A $26,474.40 trifecta is paid to fans holding a 2-6-5 ticket. That payout is a track record.

March 16, 1991 — Three stablemates — Crafty Ridan, Kobrakaun and Full of Dooba — accomplish a first at the track by sweeping the top three spots in the Eagles Handicap. The feat is later equaled by trainers Johnny Rohrbough and Brian Roberts.

Feb. 26, 1994 — Nine trainers lose 36 horses in a fire at Barn R. An emersion heater is blamed for the blaze that created the biggest history in the history of the track.

April 29, 1995 — I'ma Game Master and Glaring combine to create one of the most exciting races in track history by finishing in a deadheat in the Bosselman/Gus Fonner Handicap. Ten excruciating minutes pass after the horses cross the finish line before the race is declared a tie.

April 2, 2000 — Jockey Ken Shino ties a national record and sets a track mark by winning eight races in one day. Shino also set a track record by winning seven straight races.

Feb. 17, 2001 — Leaping Plum wins the Grasmick Handicap for the seventh straight time. That streak is believed to be a national record for consecutive wins in the same stakes race.

Today — Break out the candles and the party hats: Fonner Park is 50!

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