GRAND ISLAND, Neb. - All but a few of the betting windows at Fonner Park are shuttered. The patrons, mostly older folks, study Daily Racing Forms and programs at folding tables. Some mill about the drab concourse. Some sit in the enclosed grandstand.
Outside, about a half-dozen fans watch along the track apron as the horses head for home in a race run for a modest $4,300 purse.
Such are things these days at Fonner Park, which used to teem with activity this time of year.
Like many tracks around the nation, Fonner Park has struggled the past two decades because of an aging fan base and competition for the entertainment and gambling dollar. Unlike many racing states, however, Nebraska hasn't attempted to counter the trend by allowing other forms of gambling at its three tracks.
What troubles racing people here is that the sport is dying a slow death in what once was a Midwest racing hub. The state was the nation's first to legalize pari-mutuel wagering, in 1935.
"First to worst," said longtime Nebraska horse trainer David Anderson.
Fonner used to fill up with 8,000 fans on its best days in the 1980s, the heyday of Nebraska racing. But on this clear but cool and windy spring afternoon, there aren't 800 in the place.
"You think about those days when the stands were full," Anderson said, his voice trailing off. "If we don't get something done legislatively by 2010, racing as we know it in Nebraska will be virtually done."
Other racing states allow their tracks to supplement purses with revenue from slot machines, card games, or other types of gambling. Competitive purses attract quality racing stock, and the extra proceeds help cover the tracks' costs of doing business.
In Nebraska, there's a strong anti-gambling lobby, and voters and legislators have turned back every effort to add other types of gambling at the state's tracks.
Hurt by competition
There isn't much romance to racing at tracks like Fonner. In the rickety wooden barns in the stable area, mom-and-pop training operations are the rule.
Making ends meet is a challenge. Wagering is a small fraction of what it used to be, purses are stagnant or dropping, and the prices for fuel and feed are rising.
Without other forms of gambling at the tracks, racing is unlikely to survive in Nebraska.
"If you look at other states, the only ones doing well are the ones that have alternate forms of gambling," said longtime Fonner Park general manager Hugh Miner Jr.
The tracks' problems have been exacerbated because customers are being lured away by casinos in neighboring states. Racing in Iowa and Kansas is holding its own because patrons at the tracks can bet on more than just races.
Horse wagering in Nebraska, from its peak in 1985, has dropped 76.8 percent, according to the Nebraska State Racing Commission.
In 1985, when there were 233 racing days in Nebraska, $214.6 million - that's $418 million in today's dollars - was wagered.
There are now just 103 racing days in Nebraska, but year-round simulcasting means Nebraskans can bet on races across the country every day except Christmas.
The engine that once drove Nebraska racing was Aksarben, where as many as 25,000 fans bet more than $2 million a day on weekends in the 1980s.
Aksarben management failed to respond when dog racing started in 1986. Other forms of gambling followed, and crowds and wagering dwindled. In 1995, 10 years after Aksarben's record-setting season, the track ran its last race. The mammoth facility has been torn down.
All that's left in Nebraska are the three small tracks and an industry struggling to remain relevant.
"To see what we had, and to see it now, and then to see what it can be when you go to other states, that's what is frustrating," said Dennis Kirby of Silver Creek, president of the Nebraska Thoroughbred Breeders Association and a breeder since the 1950s.
Racing got a boost in the late 1980s with the advent of simulcasting. In 1998, three years after Aksarben closed, the state's horsemen group opened a year-round simulcasting facility in Omaha.
That facility, Horsemen's Park, subsidizes 40-50 percent of the purses offered at tracks in Grand Island, Columbus and Lincoln.
"If the horsemen had not developed Horsemen's into the simulcast facility it is, the racing industry would have ceased to exist in Nebraska a couple years ago. There wouldn't have been enough revenue to support live racing," said Dennis Lee, chairman of the State Racing Commission.
But Horsemen's Park also has taken a hit. It generated $65 million in bets in 2002. Last year, that figure plummeted to $49 million, or about half the $96.5 million wagered in Nebraska.
The nays have it
Horsemen say the Legislature, voters, and 21st-century technology hold the key to racing's future in Nebraska.
Voters turned down a gambling initiative two years ago that would have assisted the tracks. Another legislative effort is planned for 2009 or 2010, and officials characterize it as a last chance.
Ten racing states allow slots at tracks. And even in the bastion of American racing, Kentucky, there is a push for slots.
Greg Hosch, general manager of Horsemen's Park, said Nebraska should also ease restrictions on off-track and Internet wagering. There also is no reason, he said, why bettors shouldn't be able to play the horses from home on their computers.
"I just think we're behind the times," Hosch said. "I know our tote system would allow us to have a portal on our website where people could sign up for an account and bet right through Horsemen's Park. We could take our product to the people instead of them having to come to us."
When Fonner's meet wraps up in early May, the Nebraska circuit continues on to Lincoln and then Columbus.
Horsemen say their biggest race is against time.
"It's not like we're going to give up," said Kirby, the breeder. "You've gotta keep fighting for it."