Neb. lawmakers continue fight for horse racing

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers will again push for several bills that would bring in more money for the state's horse racing industry and offer hope of reversing years of decline.

Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh will be among those pushing for a bill Monday before the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.

Lautenbaugh introduced a bill and a constitutional amendment that would allow state race tracks to install machines that allow betting on old horse races that are displayed on machines that look like video lottery terminals. The location and other details of the races would be hidden.

Betting on old races allows people to wager at a much faster rate than when betting on live races.

Horse racing advocates argue such new gambling options are essential if Nebraska wants to retain racing.

"We are scrambling around trying to figure out how to survive," said Greg Hosch of Omaha Exposition and Racing and general manager of Horsemen's Park in Omaha. "Historic horse racing machines could help us bring in more money to fund live racing and fight off increased competition for other gambling interest such as keno or the lottery."

Although the terminals look like video gambling machines, Lautenbaugh said there is no comparison.

"These are not slot machines," Lautenbaugh said. "It's about what you're doing, not what it looks like."

Lautenbaugh and other lawmakers have unsuccessfully introduced similar bills on horse racing in past sessions. Last year, Gov. Dave Heineman vetoed a similar proposal.

"We've been down this road before. I guess I'm just being stubborn about it," Lautenbaugh said. "I think it's important to save an industry that accounts for thousands of jobs in Nebraska."

Horse racing in Nebraska has been on the decline since Omaha's Ak-Sar-Ben race track closed in 1995, said Nebraska State Racing Commission director Tom Sage. In 2012, the South Sioux City Atokad Downs track closed and Lincoln lost its track at the state fairgrounds to a University of Nebraska development project. The horsemen group has begun building a new facility on the outskirts of Lincoln to host simulcast racing, and eventually a live race track.

In 1988, about 180 live races were held in Nebraska, Sage said. Last year the number was only about half that amount.

Only 91 live races bringing in $77 million were held at six facilities last year. That number will continue to shrink in 2013, as the horse racing industry has scheduled just 51 live races, Sage said.

Live racing has declined because it's expensive requires so much work, Hosch said. Last year the Lincoln Race Course lost $247,000 on live racing, he said.

Pat Loontjer, executive director of Gambling with the Good Life, argued that the racing industry wants to move from live races to recorded events because this enables gamblers to bet more quickly and frequently. She said the same thing happened in Council Bluffs, Iowa, when dog racing became less popular.

"They are trying to subsidize a dying industry," she said. "It's not about jobs. It's not about horses. These are people that only care about gambling and lining their own pockets. "

The state requires tracks to hold at least one live race to offer simulcast racing, which allows Nebraskans to bet on out-of-state live races. Loontjer said she was embarrassed by a 13-second live race that Lincoln Race Course held in January to make sure it could continue to host simulcast racing in 2014.

Hosch disagreed, saying the proposed new rules are intended to retain live racing.

The committee will also hear other bills related to simulcasting licenses and online horse wagers.

Omaha Sen. Heath Mello has proposed a bill on behalf of Omaha Exposition and Racing dealing with online bets on horse racing.

Out-of-state companies now operate online gambling sites, but it's illegal for race tracks in Nebraska to do the same thing, Mello said. The bill seeks to increase penalties on those companies that take bets from Nebraskans.

"While the other bills expand gaming, this bill seeks to limit it," Mello said. "We think it needs to be clarified that this is illegal."

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