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Hundreds of horse racing fans, fanatic and causal alike on Friday night descended on Ag Park for the beginning of the 76th year of horse racing in Columbus.

At least, that's the number Columbus Exposition and Racing Vice President Tom Jackson thought it had reached.

Jackson and the four-member CER group, including Dan Clarey, Russ Placzek and Chad Sucha, have put together an 11-date race schedule for the 2019 season that began Friday and runs through Labor Day on Monday, Sept. 2.

The schedule includes the next four Fridays and Saturdays, takes a break on Friday the 30th then closes with the 31st and the first two days in September.

If fans, trainers and owners begin seeing faster times over the next month, there's a good reason why. CER, in a partnership with the Nebraska Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, leveled out the track to an even racing surface.

"We’re expecting to have a really good season," Jackson said. "We resurfaced the whole horse racing track this year and leveled it off to its original form going all the way around. It should bring really good and safe racing conditions for the horses. To this point, the horsemen are very pleased with it."

The project began around Independence Day and wrapped up just before the Platte County Fair a few weeks later. Since then, it's mostly been a grooming process since horses began filtering in for the season after the fair.

"It was affordable and very helpful to spruce the place up," Jackson said.

To some, it may sound like a reaction to horse deaths at Santa Anita and across the country, but Jackson said that's not the case. The track was badly in disrepair and needed the work.

Santa Anita, a track near Los Angeles, wrapped up its winter season with 30 horse deaths in six months. Ten horses died at tracks across the country last year. According to New York Times reporter Joe Drape, adding in training accidents and things that happen off the track and that figure goes up to 25 per week.

"I wouldn’t say it was a reaction to Santa Anita. I would say it was needed. The track has been neglected. (Fixing the track) has been mandated for many years. The Nebraska (Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association) and CER partnered to get it fixed up, reconditioned and leveled throughout the track," Jackson said.

"There have been issues with conditions at tracks, Santa Anita and throughout the country, and our focus is to provide a very safe surface so that the animals are protected first of all, and the owners and their investments are protected as well."

Leveling it off meant raising or dropping the surface by as much as 2 feet at certain points. On the south end of the track, Jackson said the distance from the top of the rail to the dirt was 22 inches in certain spots. Throughout the rest of the track, that distance was 42 or 43 inches.

"Today, it's 41 inches all the way around," Jackson said.

Brian Palmer, Ag Park general manager, is excited for the new season as well. Although CER runs almost 100 percent of the racing season, Palmer and the Platte County Agricultural Society are responsible for part of the concessions and the facility, the grandstand.

"We’re really happy that CER is in its sixth racing season maintaining the rich tradition of horse racing that has gone on in Columbus for decades. We know Columbus race fans, area race fans and fans from all over appreciate CER’s work in keeping the tradition alive," Palmer said.

"They’re really the ones that have kept this going. We work together, but at the end of the day, they’re the ones who make it happen."

Palmer said food options will remain the same as last year: Wild West Barbecue and the taco truck Taquiera Vallarta

Local racing fan Casey Kavan was stepping away from the Taquiera Vallarta truck on Friday night shortly before the first race of the season.

"I grew up doing this," Kavan said, accompanied by her sons, Brycen and Braden. "My parents train horses. They're not here at this meet anymore, but we live here and this is how I grew up. Now, my kids get to experience it. They love it."

Fans can involve themselves in the event by sponsoring a blanket for a race winner or a banner at the track.

Blanket sponsorships allow a group to memorialize or recognize a person or event with a blanket covering the winning horse after a particular race. Sponsors then join together for a photo with the horse and jockey.

"Our blanket and banner sales are up. We continue to have high interest from class reunions, anniversaries and memorials are big. Tom Jahde, one of our former partners, passed away this year, and we’re looking forward to the memorial blanket race that his family has put together," Jackson said.

Purchasing a banner or a blanket can be accomplished through the CER. Reserving table space near the grandstand or other seating is also handled by CER.

"Picking out a table, sponsoring blanket races or finding preferred seating can be inquired about at the CER office," Jackson said. "All those things can also be purchased with a phone call to our office, 402-562-8009."

Race fans may also notice casino supporters with clipboards requesting signatures in and around the grandstand.

In April, a ballot initiative proposal was filed with the secretary of state's office in an attempt to put expanded gambling on the ballot in 2020. The initiative is for a state constitutional amendment that would allow casino gambling at Nebraska's four horse tracks - Columbus, Grand Island, Lincoln and Omaha.

Every state bordering Nebraska, other than Wyoming has casino gambling. Those in the horse racing industry see the potential addition of machines and table games a way to keep racing alive in the state.

As reported by the Journal Star in April, Nebraska's four tracks brought in a combined wagering total from 2017 that was the lowest since simulcasting was first added in the 1980s.

"We’re in support of that to be able to compete with other race tracks in other states in the industry," Jackson said.

But for now, Jackson and the fellow members of CER will focus on the new season.

"We’re looking forward to some new jockeys and new trainers. We’re also looking forward to bringing back some of the locals that have helped out this industry, like the Martinez family, the Compton family, Dean Bliss and his stable of horses, Billy Krause and his stable of horses and some of the owners would be the Pensiks, and these are just a couple of names that are coming to the top of my head," he said. "We’re looking forward to once again hosting all the jockeys, trainers and owners, newcomers and veterans to Columbus and working with them to make this a good horse racing meet."

Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at sports@columbustelegram.com.

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