COLUMBUS — The promotional calendars for the upcoming Columbus Races say “make racing great again” — a play on President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.
In reality, the sport has never really fallen from its pedestal in Columbus, which has hosted a live horse racing meet for more than 70 years.
The crowds continue to pack Platte County Agricultural Park on race days each summer. And this season — the fifth since Columbus Exposition and Racing took over the meet — should be no different.
“The community loves to come out to watch the races,” said Tom Jackson, a member of Columbus Exposition and Racing (CER), which stepped in to operate the live meet in 2013 after the Platte County Agricultural Society decided it no longer wanted to.
Jackson said the group, which also includes Dan Clarey, Chad Sucha and Russ Placzek, is “very optimistic” heading into the 2017 season. Although they’re down one man after Tom Jahde left CER for health reasons.
Local interest in horse racing spiked in May when Columbus High graduate Channing Hill rode in his first Kentucky Derby, finishing 17th aboard Fast and Accurate. The jockey, who competed as a high schooler at Ag Park and Prairie Meadows in Iowa, rebounded to take third in the Preakness Stakes and fifth in the Belmont Stakes, riding Senior Investment in both Triple Crown races.
Jackson said there always seems to be more horse racing fans during the Triple Crown events. Adding Hill to the mix only increases the excitement.
“Whenever Channing Hill is active, we’re really good,” Jackson said. “People come out to support it. They cheer for him.”
Simulcast betting on off-site races, which is also run by CER, is on pace with previous years, according to Jackson, who knows the real fun starts this weekend.
Ag Park will host 16 days of live horse racing starting Friday. Post times are 6:30 p.m. every Friday and Saturday through Sept. 1 and 2 p.m. each Sunday, as well as 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2, and Labor Day.
Jackson is expecting both the horse and jockey numbers to mirror last season, with a few young riders who are new to Ag Park sure to show up.
“Our meet is usually a good one for them to get some experience at,” said Jackson.
Wagering at Ag Park dipped slightly in 2016, when the pari-mutuel handle for the live meet was $734,427, down from $745,249 the year prior. However, that figure is still above the $697,886 bet in 2014.
Ag Park took a total of $4 million in bets, including simulcast races, last year, down from $4.3 million in 2015.
That number could be poised to rebound this year if Fonner Park is an indicator.
Bruce Swihart, CEO at the Grand Island track, said the pari-mutuel handle there would have increased this year had two days of the live meet, including opening day, not been canceled by inclement weather.
Swihart reported that jockey and horse numbers were both up from 2016, when Fonner Park was placed under a quarantine in April after three horses tested positive for equine herpes.
“Our horse numbers were up considerably this year due to that fact,” said Swihart, who described the live meet that ran from late February to early May as “really good.”
“They still like live horse racing,” Swihart said of the 6,000 or so people who can show up on a Saturday at Fonner Park.
CER also promotes the Columbus Races as an economic driver that brings in spectators from across eastern Nebraska and helps fill local hotels, restaurants and other businesses.
Jackson estimates about 60 percent of race attendees come from outside the city.
“It’s a good draw for our community and it brings dollars into our community,” he said.
CER also employs dozens of people on race days, in addition to those who handle simulcast betting year-round.
Although smaller tracks like Ag Park can struggle to compete with larger venues in other states that are backed by casino gambling — and efforts by the Nebraska horse racing industry to even the playing field have failed in recent years — that won’t stop people from showing up Friday night.
“It’s still a great place to come,” Jackson said.