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Nebraska horse racing industry hangs on new track in Lincoln

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- The struggling Nebraska horse racing industry is pinning its hopes for long-term survival on a new Lincoln track that will be built over the next two or three years.

The state Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association on Tuesday announced the purchase of about 100 acres for the new Lincoln Racecourse.

This is the last year for live racing at the city's current track, which is closing to make way for expansion of the adjacent University of Nebraska.

Racing in the state, and nationwide, has been fighting a losing battle against other forms of gambling since the 1980s. Industry leaders in Nebraska say they sustained a major blow this year when Gov. Dave Heineman vetoed a bill that would have legalized historic racing machines. Those machines, which would have been placed only at racetracks, would have allowed patrons to bet on any of thousands of previously run races in North America via video terminals.

Backers hoped the revenue could be used to build a Lincoln racing facility all at once. As it is, the HBPA, which also owns and operates Horsemen's Park in Omaha, will build it one piece at a time with the goal of ending up with a one-mile track, grandstand and stables for 1,000 horses.

The Lincoln project is seen as a possible lifeline for a sport that dates to 1935 in Nebraska.

"If we lose Lincoln or Omaha's market, then I think that has potential to be catastrophic," Nebraska State Racing Commission chairman Dennis Lee said. "Omaha's market is safe. Lincoln is a question mark, and I'll breathe a lot easier as a regulator when I hear of concrete plans for a racetrack."

The new Lincoln Racecourse will be the first track built in the United States since Pinnacle Race Course near Detroit in 2008, according to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Pinnacle lasted only two seasons before shutting down because of lack of business.

Gene McCloud, vice president of the Nebraska HBPA, said he has confidence the Lincoln track will succeed because it will be owned by horsemen rather than businessmen.

"It's going to be an uphill climb but it's not one we're unfamiliar with," McCloud said. "Lincoln has been supportive of the races before. We have to budget, maintain a good facility and watch our overhead, and we can make it work."

Longtime Nebraska trainer Chuck Turco said the new track has created optimism among horsemen, but he added a caveat.

"We're going to need to get lucky," he said.

The state HBPA plans to first build a simulcasting facility that will open in late summer 2013. In simulcasting, patrons wager on races run at other tracks.

Simulcasting revenue will be used to build a grandstand, track and barns. HBPA officials did not know how much construction would cost because the facility will be built in stages.

The state HBPA also announced that Atokad Downs in South Sioux City has been shut down and sold. HBPA officials did not name the buyer or sale price.

Atokad conducted on-track racing just one day a year, satisfying a state law so it operate as a year-round simulcasting facility. Its closing had been expected because of dwindling attendance and wagers.

The loss of Atokad will leave Nebraska with tracks in Grand Island, Columbus and Omaha in addition to Lincoln.

Wagering on on-track and simulcast racing in Nebraska has dropped from $96.8 million in 2007 to $83.5 million in 2011. More than two-thirds of wagering total come from Omaha and Lincoln.

State law mandates 72 days of on-track racing, with 30 required at Fonner Park in Grand Island and 23 at Agricultural Park in Columbus. Horsemen's Park in Omaha, primarily a simulcasting facility, plans to run at least six days on its track this year.

Additional on-track racing days would have to be spread among any or all of those three tracks to attain the 72-day minimum until Lincoln is up and running with a full meet. McCloud said he didn't know how long that would take, but the HBPA hopes to eventually conduct a meet lasting at least 30 days in Lincoln.