Nebraska horse racing group, which led fight for casinos, opposes proposals for new tracks

LINCOLN — Proposals for five new horse race tracks and accompanying casinos — including one in Norfolk — faced stiff opposition Friday from those who led the fight for voter approval of casinos in the state.

In particular, they argued that tracks proposed for Bellevue and York would dilute the market, weaken existing tracks and doom the chances for Nebraska casinos to compete with established gambling interests in Iowa.

“Building up casinos should build up the racing industry, not line the pockets of others,” said Garald Wollesen, president of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

Lynne McNally, the association’s executive director, said the Bellevue track would hurt efforts to develop a destination casino at Horsemen’s Park in Omaha that could lure Nebraska gambling dollars back from Iowa casinos.

They and others spoke at a meeting of the Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission in Lincoln. The meeting was the second since the state agency, formerly the Nebraska Racing Commission, was renamed, expanded and charged with overseeing the implementation of race track casinos.

The group made no decisions on the proposals, referring them instead for review by newly created committees. Commission Chairman Dennis Lee said he does not have a timeline for the approval process. But he promised that there would be separate public hearings on each proposal before the commission makes its decision.

Earlier Friday, state Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, the chairman of the General Affairs Committee, responded to the influx of new track-and-casino proposals by announcing that he wants to limit the number of casinos in the state.

Briese said he would introduce legislation in January capping the number of casino licenses that could be approved, although he has not decided what that number should be. He expects to work out that number in consultation with other senators, the public and the industry.

“From my perspective, I believe that a limit on the number of such operations is consistent with both the will of the voters and Nebraska values,” Briese said, adding that it would be more difficult to regulate a larger number of casinos.

Voters passed a trio of ballot initiatives last year that authorized the casinos. The measures included a constitutional amendment allowing casino gambling at licensed horse race tracks and two laws regulating the casinos and earmarking most of the tax revenue to property tax relief.

At the time of the vote, Nebraska had six race tracks, in Grand Island, Omaha, Lincoln, South Sioux City, Columbus and Hastings, which meant the potential for six casinos.

The five new tracks are proposed for Bellevue, York, Norfolk, North Platte and Scottsbluff.

Keno operator John Hassett introduced plans for a track to be called Belle Vue Downs, or The Vue, which would offer quarter horse racing and be paired with a casino. He said the emphasis would be on racing, not the casino, and that the project would bring economic development to the city.

The York project is being developed by three local couples who have a background in business and would operate under the name Freedom Bay. Jane Jensen, one of the developers, said it would include a casino, training track, hotel, golf course and other entertainment options.

WarHorse Gaming, a division of Ho-Chunk Inc., submitted the application for the Norfolk track. Ho-Chunk CEO Lance Morgan argued that the track and accompanying casino would expand the market for gambling in the area, not hurt the nearby Columbus track. He also said plans for the track predated the ballot initiatives.

Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska; and the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, a group representing the horse owners and trainers who race in Nebraska; led the effort to get the initiatives on the ballot and campaigned for their passage.

WarHorse Gaming already has contracts to develop casinos at the Lincoln, Omaha and South Sioux City tracks.

Breann and Brian Becker, who operate a quarter horse race track in Hastings, proposed new quarter horse tracks with casinos in North Platte and Scottsbluff. They said the projects would fill an entertainment void in western Nebraska and spur new racing opportunities in the heart of quarter horse country.

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