GRAND ISLAND — Remember the fairy tale about The Little Engine That Could?
Fonner Park is proving to be the little racetrack that could.
The Grand Island facility has continued horse racing despite an empty grandstand when many other larger tracks have been forced to shut down because of coronavirus concerns. Management has had to think outside the box to generate revenue, including sending its simulcast signal as far away as Australia. With only six tracks in America still racing, the spotlight on Fonner has gotten significantly brighter as fans from around the world watch and wager on races at a place they probably know little about.
“We figured we’d get more attention, but I’m not sure anyone thought it was going to be like this,” Fonner CEO Chris Kotulak said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep racing and raise purse money for our horsemen.”
Fonner’s 67th season has certainly proved to be the most unusual. COVID-19 has changed everything for Kotulak, an Omaha native who took over as the track’s CEO last July.
The meet started normally enough on Feb. 21, but big changes were ahead. By March 16, the facility had been shut down because of the coronavirus.
Kotulak met with Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele and discussed the possibility of continuing racing without spectators. An agreement was reached with Fonner’s assurance that all coronavirus precautions would be met.
So the track was allowed to keep racing, which it has done the past six weeks.
Fonner’s simulcast signal is being sent all across America and to such faraway places as France, Australia, England, Ireland and Chile.
“We got a call from Scotland, and the guy had a bet with his friend about where we were located,” Kotulak said. “One guy saw ‘NE’ on the map and thought that stood for New England.”
It also has led to Fonner achieving a sort of cult status with the fans. The five-eighths mile track — smaller than the more prestigious 1-mile tracks in America that are not racing — brings its own level of Midwestern charm.
Many of those fans are taking advantage of off-track wagering through the Television Games Network, or TVG. The online horse racing business makes it easy for betting-starved fans — many of whom are already staying at home these days — to watch and wager on the races.
TVG account holders are able to wager online or by mobile phone. The service is legal in 31 states, but not Nebraska.
John Hindman, executive vice president and general counsel for TVG, knows all about Fonner. He graduated from Grand Island High in 1991 and is familiar with Nebraska racing.
“I’ve always felt like Fonner has been an unsung hero,” he said. “I have great memories of the track being a wonderful place.”
Hindman added that before this year, many race fans probably were unaware of Fonner or rarely wagered on the races there.
“There are people in our own company who didn’t know about it,” he said. “But that’s changed in recent weeks because it’s gotten national exposure.”
That exposure has produced some eye-popping simulcast numbers, higher than Fonner management even imagined. The track’s previous single-day mutuel handle record was $1.2 million, but Fonner has easily blown past that mark and is averaging $2.8 million per day.
On-track betting numbers are considerably smaller, usually around $30,000. Fans have limited access to the facility and must stay in their cars, which are parked between the racetrack and the grandstand.
They wager via their MBet mobile accounts, which can only be activated when a fan is within the confines of the track.
Fonner gets only a small percentage of those giant simulcast pools. But it’s still been enough to generate money for live races while allowing horsemen to ply their trade.
“It’s an example of strange times calling for strange actions,” Nebraska Racing Commissioner Dennis Lee said. “Their season started the way it always has, but then they got a curveball and had to deal with it.”
Lee added that it’s taken a concerted effort by everyone at Fonner — management, trainers, jockeys, owners, breeders and others — to make it work.
“Rarely do you see so many people on such common ground,” he said. “But the desire to keep racing under really tough circumstances has brought them all together.”
Jockey Jake Olesiak said everyone is indeed on the same page.
“We’re all extremely happy that we’ve been able to keep racing,” he said. “We feel like we’re lucky to keep our livelihoods.”
The rider added that it is unusual to race in front of that empty grandstand.
“It’s definitely different,” he said. “It’s really quiet and in some ways it’s depressing, but at least we’re still racing.”
Olesiak, who is second in the jockey standings with 41 wins, said it’s been fun to hear from relatives who are watching those Fonner races from afar.
“I’m getting calls from family all over the place,” he said. “I know a lot more people are watching our simulcasts this year, but I don’t feel any added pressure.”
Kotulak and his team made a shrewd move in late March by shifting race days from the traditional weekends to Mondays through Wednesdays. Only one other North American track — Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma — is racing on those days.
Fonner also moved its first post time back to later in the afternoon, making it even more attractive for West Coast simulcast fans.
“They’ve made some good decisions that enhanced their racing,” Hindman said. “Moving their dates and their times helped generate even more interest.”
Adding to the track’s betting interest is a Pick 5 wager, in which fans need to correctly select the winners of five straight races. Those pots have grown enormous, including one that exceeded $4.1 million — an unheard-of amount for the small track.
The betting frenzy that day led to some controversy when the post time favorite won the first Pick 5 race but was disqualified because of jockey interference. Disgruntled fans lit up the track on Twitter, and Kotulak responded by defending the unanimous decision of his track’s stewards in a national interview.
“All of the eyes of the world seemed to be on us, so I explained it the best I could,” he said. “Was it unfortunate? Yes. Was it horse racing? Yes. Was it the crime of the century? No.”