Simulcast racing and horse wagering are returning to Columbus Agricultural Park on Saturday and for the foreseeable future.
That’s according to the results of a meeting on Thursday between members of Columbus Exposition and Racing Inc., members of the Platte County Agricultural Society Board of Directors, local business leaders and various other interested parties.
The CER initially shut down operations at Ag Park on Sept. 6, posting a note on the door of the upstairs simulcasting facility, as previously reported by The Columbus Telegram. The note failed to indicate the reason for the suspension, saying only the CER was suspending simulcasting until further notice and seeking to have “all issues resolved so that we can continue our operation.”
It’s unclear whether all the issues were resolved at Thursday’s impromptu meeting. But the CER did share, through an email sent to The Telegram, that simulcasting would resume on Saturday and the group is working on a plan to submit live race dates for the 2019 season later this year. The email listed Dan Clarey as the author of the message.
Another member of the four-member CER, Tom Jackson, reached out to local business leader Dennis Hirschbrunner, who gathered all the essential individuals together for the discussion.
“They’re trying to make a decision with the license they hold whether they’re going to try and race again next year, keep it shut down or what they’re going to do,” said Hirschbrunner, part owner of the Ramada Hotel and River's Edge Convention Center on 33rd Avenue in Columbus. “What we tried to do is get a lot of stakeholders from the county, the city, the Ag Society and interested people from the public. We had a really good first meeting. It was pretty much an informational meeting, asking questions and trying to figure out where everything is.
“I think the guys who have the license were looking to see what kind of support they had from the community. I think they went away yesterday with a clear understanding there wasn’t anybody in the meeting who wanted horse racing to go away.”
Although he has a financial interest in live horse racing, saying about 60 percent of the fans who attend the races at Ag Park come from out of town, he also has a social and community interest in an event that has been part of the Columbus community for nearly 80 years.
“Columbus has a limited number of venues for entertainment,” Hirschbrunner said. “This is one venue I don’t think people want to lose."
Ag Park General Manager Brian Palmer confirmed the CER is seeking a renegotiation of its contract.
The CER took over full operations of live racing when the Ag Society and the Nebraska Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association stepped away in 2012. CER has been running live racing and simulcasting ever since.
The Ag Society’s only role since then has been providing the facilities for CER’s operations.
Negotiations between the CER and the Ag Society won’t likely begin until October once last year’s full budget for the Ag Society becomes more clear. The fiscal year for the Ag Society ends Sept. 30.
Palmer said he has seen an increase in communication and concern to his office since last week when simulcasting was suspended and wants to ensure the Columbus community that all parties are working hard to ensure a 2019 live season becomes a reality.
“The Platte County Ag Society and Columbus Exposition and Racing have worked together since 2013 to keep the horse racing tradition alive in Columbus. We will continue to do so in the future,” he said.
“The horse racing industry is a very complicated business. Very few people understand every side of it. I wish people had more education rather than assumptions about how things go. Speculation and rumors are just that. Our office is open Monday through Friday, and our phone number is in the book. If people have questions, they can call. We don’t avoid that stuff.”
For now, at least, simulcasting is back at Ag Park and live racing once again has life.
“We’re trying to figure out the best way to help the license holders while at the same time making sure we’re aligned with state laws,” Hirschbrunner said. “There will be some additional meetings. (The CER) indicated they have until November to make a decision. That’s when they have to file with the state racing commission for another year. We’ve got a little bit of time to sort everything out, see where everybody is and see what kind of support and help we can provide them.”
Clarey later Friday got back to The Telegram and provided more insight on the matter, noting the negotiations between CER and PCAS had to do with usage/rental agreements. He said concessions were not discussed and that CER has no reason to believe they will be in the future.
"Suspension of simulcasting was a financial decision. Our operation needed financial commitments in order to continue. The suspension was not solely about an agreement between CER and PCAS," he said, in an email to The Telegram. "CER would never attempt to pressure anyone into helping them with their goal of continuing horse racing in Columbus. Horse racing has to bring value to the people that support it -- whether that's the HBPA, PCAS, the general public, businesses, CER, or whoever. The value isn't necessarily always monetary -- there are certainly other reasons to support the continuation of racing."
As for the future of live racing in Columbus in 2019, he couldn't make any guarantees.
"There are very few things in life that are absolute certainties. We are optimistic about running live in 2019; but we also understand we must continue to look for opportunities to make racing a successful event," he said. "Everyone who is a fan of racing needs to understand that we could not do what we do without the generous support and commitment of the Nebraska HBPA and the Platte County Ag Society."
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.