Horsemen’s Park in September
A spectator at Horsemen’s Park yells at the horse they have bet on, trying to somehow motivate the horse during the final turn of the 146th Kentucky Derby. Photographer: Garrett Freund

It was a sticky, hot Saturday afternoon Labor Day weekend. Usually, Horsemen’s Park in Omaha, Nebraska, would not be this crowded for a September Saturday. But due to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, many sporting events had to be shuffled around — some were canceled and some were postponed. The Kentucky Derby was no different. It was slated to run late that evening. Even with no fans at Churchill Downs, the home to America’s most famous horse race, Omahans placed a bet at the only venue in town.

“I’ve been in the business about 35 years and this is different than anything I’ve ever seen. This entire year has been different than anything I’ve ever seen,” said Mike Newlin, Chief Executive Officer of Omaha Exposition and Racing, which manages the Horseman’s Park and Lincoln Racecourse properties. 

The world of sports betting is no longer taboo after the Supreme Court in May 2018 decided to strike down a 1992 federal law on sports gambling, many states rushed to legalize gambling on sports. Sixteen states legalized sports gambling. One is right across the river from Nebraska: Iowa. 

This year, the experience at Horsemen’s Park, one of the only places in Nebraska currently allowing gambling on a live event, looks slightly different from usual because of the pandemic. 

“So, every time you go up to make a bet, you have to have your mask on. The only time you can have your mask off is when you’re seated at your table or your seat,” Newlin said. “It’s going to be very difficult to police because people are going up and making bets every five minutes and a lot of times they forget but our customers have been pretty cooperative so far.”

Although Horsemen’s Park had to tweak its usual race day festivities, people still spent the day betting on horses, either by going to the betting window and then leaving, staying at the park and tailgating — socially distant, of course — or by paying $20 to park in the infield of the track where the horses would normally be galloping for seven days of live racing over three weekends last May.

Inside Horsemen’s Park, people got in and out of their seats, masking up, to bet the ponies. The anticipation mounts and the energy inside the park grows as people wash down their beers and finish their nachos, closely observing the races where they have placed their money. The horses are loaded into the stalls, and at Horsemen’s Park, it feels as though the coronavirus had disappeared. Observers can hear a pin drop, and then, the stalls open. The bell rings, and the announcer shouts, “And they’re off.” The race fans start to hoot and holler for their horse to get the inside lane. They plead for a first-place finish. Some fans scream as the horse named Authentic overcomes the favorite Tiz the Law with plus-800 odds.

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Voters in Nebraska obtained over nearly half a million signatures and later the state’s Supreme Court approved a casino gambling ballot measure for The Cornhusker State in the upcoming election. After all, Nebraskan’s already spend a fair amount of money gambling across the river. 

“Nebraskans wager about $330 million a year in Iowa every year,” said Newlin. “So, there’s a lot of money interest from outside states to make sure that we don’t get it.”

But not all Nebraskans are in favor, and some think the potential to get into legal trouble is too risky.

“I think it’s kind of a travesty when those same parties are trying to not let us on the ballot after we obtained a record 477,000 signatures to get this on the ballot,” Newlin said.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has strongly opposed gambling in the past, saying addiction and poverty that comes with gambling would not be worth the risk. 

Nick Handley, an Omaha ESPN Radio host, said he’s perplexed by Ricketts’ thought process regarding sports gambling. 

“I would love to sit down and say, ‘OK, your family, with its involvement with the Chicago Cubs, are doing what every other sports franchise is now doing when you used to resist it,’” Handley said. “’Now, you’re embracing it because you see the revenue stream. Why can’t that be at a larger scale in the state that you represent and see the big revenue stream that it can create?”

Handley is not the only one confused. Mike’ l Severe, another Omaha sports-talk radio host, said the other states that have legalized gambling have not seen negative effects.

“Show me where the Iowa West Foundation hasn’t done a lot of great things for Council Bluffs in the state of Iowa and the education systems in Iowa,” he said. 

Severe has also been across the river himself to bet on sports along with thousands of Nebraskans who do it all the time.

“We have tax money with money going from Nebraska over to Iowa,” Severe said. “Every single day, sometimes multiple times a day. I know I’ve done it, I’ve gone there given my money as well.”

To some, including Severe, it almost seems like a political tactic instead of letting the people of Nebraska choose if they want gambling in the state or not.

“It really seems to be a political thing where they’re thinking more what side of the aisle they’re on,” he said. “More than the people in Nebraska and giving people in Nebraska a chance to vote whether or not they want legalized gaming, that should be the way to do it.”

Despite Ricketts and Secretary of State Bob Evnen’s best efforts to block gambling from getting on the ballot, Nebraska’s Supreme Court ruled to include a gambling expansion on the ballot this fall, but this does not include sports gambling. Nebraska natives will have to wait a little while longer until they can bet on their Huskers.  

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Some still see the pitfalls and downsides to sports gambling from once being addicted to the rush of betting large sums of money on games. 

Josh Kutilek, a former sports gambler, said he had kind of a “rough road” when he was betting.

“It took me a couple years to figure out,” he said. “I had to reevaluate where I was because it got too out of hand.”

For people like Kutilek, gambling was like a drug addiction.

“For me, I got such a high from it,” Kutilek said. “Down the road really it didn’t benefit me just because of how easy it is, you know, to throw up $100, $200 on a game, you know, max out in the account, go and you get another one.”

Although Kutilek has had his past struggles, he does not discourage people from sports gambling. 

“You know, as long as it’s controlled,” he said. “I think it’s a great thing and it’s fun.”