How Sports-Starved Bettors Made a Nebraska Horse Track Must-See TV

Written by on May 12, 2020

Jake Olesiak’s transformation begins at eight a.m. after he punches out from his in a single day shift at an ethanol manufacturing facility. His steel-toe boots go into the trunk, as do his masks, face protect and arduous hat. Black using boots come out, then the goggles and at last his Minnesota Vikings ball cap.

Behind the wheel is his spouse, Megan. For the following two hours, Olesiak, 32, tries to sleep together with his hat pulled down over his eyes as Megan drives the S.U.V. westward from Firth, Neb., to the meatpacking city Grand Island, with little apart from cornfields and the interstate to maintain her firm.

Olesiak, a manufacturing supervisor at E Power Adams, which makes gas from native grain, is taken into account a vital employee. He’s greater than that at Fonner Park, a tiny jewel field of a horse monitor within the heartland. He’s a cash rider, perennially atop the jockey standings.

Olesiak has received greater than 1,000 races and has practically $7 million in purse earnings. He has dreamed of riding in the Kentucky Derby, and for a decade, he pursued it full time. He has hung his gear, or tack, in jock rooms within the Dakotas, Iowa, Ohio and Canada.

However quickly after his second daughter was born, he determined to take a full-time job and journey the boutique Nebraska circuit — 59 days of racing for purses that hardly ever topped $5,000 a race. He competes not atop thoroughbreds offered for tons of of 1000’s of {dollars} within the public sale rings of Kentucky, however with horses that price far much less, typically lower than $1,000.

“Life form of occurred when my ladies got here alongside,” mentioned Olesiak, whose third daughter was born 18 months in the past. “I made a decision that I really like my household and my life right here, and I assume Nebraska simply couldn’t push me away.”

When the well being disaster closed cities, states, sports activities and far of the remainder of the economic system, Chris Kotulak, the chief govt of Fonner Park, pitched metropolis officers on permitting the monitor to conduct racing with stringent well being protocols and empty grandstands. Grand Island, the place a meat processing plant lower than two miles from the monitor has had a spike in coronavirus cases, authorised the plan. In a parking zone close to the monitor, the Nationwide Guard has been working a coronavirus testing middle for the general public.

PictureBefore the pandemic, Fonner Park averaged 6,500 fans on Saturdays and nearly that many on Sundays.

“My considering was that if I requested them to close down fully, the horse individuals wouldn’t have anyplace to go to make a residing they usually weren’t going to have the ability to feed the horses,” Roger Steele, the mayor of Grand Island, mentioned. “It was a stability of being protected whereas on the identical time being honest.”

Masks are required, and jockeys have their temperatures taken every day as they report back to the monitor. The horses are saddled within the paddock in two shifts, and at the very least one stall is saved empty between horses. Nobody has examined optimistic for the virus on the monitor, Kotulak, the chief govt, mentioned.



To achieve extra consideration for Fonner’s races, Kotulak moved its racing days from the weekend, once they competed towards greater tracks in Florida and Arkansas, to late afternoon on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

That meant Fonner Park was one of many few video games on the town on TVG Community, a horse racing channel and betting platform in 45 million properties. Whereas the game has many detractors, horse racing delivers a loyal viewers of gamblers who will guess with each fists, particularly at a time when playing alternatives are scarce.

Since making the change to weekdays, Fonner Park has averaged greater than $2.eight million in bets every day, greater than eight instances its motion from a yr in the past. Its wagering whole of $71.three million over the previous three months dwarfed final yr’s February-through-April whole of $7.5 million.

In April 2019, 5 % of TVG’s clients guess on races held at Fonner Park. Final month, 40 % of them did.

Within the tortured economics of horse racing, nonetheless, the extra motion doesn’t characterize a windfall for the off-the-beaten-path monitor, which runs as a nonprofit company, operates a 6,000-seat leisure enviornment and hosts the Nebraska State Honest.

In regular instances, Fonner retains 20 cents of each greenback guess on its weekend dates and reaps vital concession income. The monitor averaged 6,500 individuals on Saturdays and sometimes approached that on Sundays.

Now, with out followers playing instantly on the monitor, it retains solely three cents of every greenback wagered by way of platforms like TVG by homebound gamblers throughout the globe, regardless of how coveted its races.

“I’ve to care for this yr’s price range and have purses and working prices for subsequent yr,” mentioned Kotulak, an Omaha native with a colourful racing profession. He labored his manner up by way of the grits-and-hard-toast circuits of Nebraska, Oklahoma and Louisiana by calling races, promoting sponsorships and doing tv evaluation.

“However it’s good to have this second with numerous eyeballs on us and to remind people who Nebraska has a wealthy historical past of horse racing,” he added.

Within the 1960s, there have been seven racetracks within the state and 161 days of racing that attracted horsemen and followers from throughout the Midwest. The Corridor of Famer Jack Van Berg, a Nebraskan, was the main coach from 1959 to 1977 at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha earlier than profitable the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes with Alysheba in 1987. One among his assistants, Invoice Mott, a South Dakotan, grew to become the youngest coach to enter the Corridor of Fame and received final yr’s Kentucky Derby with Nation Home after Maximum Security, who crossed the end line first, was disqualified for interference.

Within the mid-1980s, Ak-Sar-Ben (Nebraska spelled backward) was 10th within the nation in racetrack attendance, averaging 25,000 every weekend day. Many followers spilled over into a close-by coliseum, the place they guess and watched the races on a film display.

Within the paddock of Fonner Park, two jockeys-turned-racing-officials are testaments to these glory days. Fred Ecoffey, 82, and Wayne Anderson, 72, are each members of the state’s horse racing corridor of fame.

Ecoffey, a Lakota Sioux whose grandmother carried out in Buffalo Invoice’s Wild West reveals, was the main rider at Fonner for years. Anderson earned the nickname Avis as a result of, as a automobile rental promoting marketing campaign proclaimed, “We strive tougher,” but he was a routine runner-up to Ecoffey’s Hertz.

The dimensions of Nebraska horse racing could have diminished, however not its tradition. The Martinez household is up every day at daybreak tending to their 40-horse steady, simply as Kelli Martinez, 49, did when she was rising up in a racetrack household in Shelby, Neb.

“It’s hands-on,” she mentioned. “No person does something midway.”

She units the schedule and trains the horses. Her husband, Armando, 53, gallops them within the morning and rode them properly sufficient thus far to enter this week within the top spot in Fonner’s jockey standings with 56 wins and $290,000 in purse earnings.

Their son, Damian, is his father’s agent and hustles mounts for him if his mom doesn’t have a horse for him to journey. Damian’s girlfriend, Alexis Burghardt, runs the shed row, caring for and feeding the horses, most of that are owned by the household.

They personal a farm in central Kentucky, a purchase order made out of necessity a number of years in the past as alternatives on the Nebraska circuit dwindled. In the course of the four-month meet in Grand Island, house turns into a pair of trailers within the motor courtroom subsequent to the monitor. When the household was in Nebraska full time, they’d pull the trailers to all 4 corners of the state, from February to November.

Horses educated by Kelli Martinez have made greater than 5,000 begins and received greater than 450 races. She has earned simply north of $three million in purse cash. That’s spectacular contemplating races at Fonner Park supply a median purse of $5,000 a race, or $50,000 a day. On the lately accomplished assembly at Oaklawn in Arkansas, the common purse measurement per day was about 10 instances that, over $525,000.

The transfer to Kentucky has been difficult because the Martinezes attempt to compete at tracks like Churchill Downs and Keeneland. The purse cash is best, however so is the competitors.

“Everybody asks why we come again right here,” Kelli Martinez mentioned. “I inform them it’s house and that’s the place we do properly financially as a household. And don’t assume this isn’t a tricky little meet. We bought outfits right here from Louisiana, Oklahoma, Colorado. You simply can’t ship in right here and count on to win.”Ask the coach Doug O’Neill, who received the Kentucky Derby twice. Final month, he shipped a horse named Battle On to run within the Bosselman Pump and Pantry/Gus Fonner Stakes, Fonner Park’s richest race at $50,000. He completed fourth.

Maybe Jake Olesiak will renew his Kentucky Derby desires later, as soon as his daughters are grown. Megan Olesiak has bred and educated thoroughbreds, and like most right here, she grew up across the animals.

For now, although, he’s grateful to work for an organization that permits him to additionally compete. He has received six of the final eight jockey titles at Fonner Park and entered the week sitting an in depth second to Armando Martinez. He appreciates Megan for driving him round Nebraska. Come summer season, the journeys get longer: seven hours to Chippewa Downs in Belcourt, N.D.

He additionally likes the eye he’s getting from pals throughout the nation who watch and guess on him from afar. With Churchill Downs set to open on Saturday and different tracks across the nation planning to go surfing, Olesiak is aware of he and his small-track pals will fade from the highlight.

“I strive my hardest whether or not there’s anybody trying or not,” he mentioned. “There’s nothing higher than being on high of a horse and profitable a race.”

Credit score…Calla Kessler/The New York Occasions

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