'The light shined heavily' on Fonner Park during record meet

'The light shined heavily' on Fonner Park during record meet
Photo: Ellis Collins/Fonner Park

Fonner Park has concluded an extended and unprecedented season of racing after adapting a standard 11-week racing season into a 15-week season that totaled 40 days of racing.

Fonner Park began its race meet on Feb. 21 and enjoyed a 10% increase in handle for the first three weeks of the season. But on March 23, operations began with no spectators due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and jumped from a Friday-Sunday schedule to Monday-Wednesday racing.

The change in race days and a move to a later first post was made to achieve maximum exposure with the least amount of competition for the wagering dollar.

On the first day of the amended format, an all-time, all-sources mutuel handle was set with more than $1.3 million wagered on the Fonner Park races.

In the immediate weeks to follow, several racetracks, ADWs and wagering services spanning the world began to take the Fonner Park signal. There were four mandatory payout days of the popular Dinsdale Late Pick 5 Jackpot wager.

The largest handle of the season came on April 7, when the total Pick 5 pool exceeded $4.1 million, spurring a total handle of $7.2 million on the day.

“The light shined heavily on little Fonner Park for over two months and we proved that we could safely and wisely conduct and maintain our racing product,” said Chris Kotulak, Fonner Park CEO. “I am particularly proud that the world learned we are not a bush track. We are certainly small, we are not Saratoga or Santa Anita, but we are a tidy, efficient, well-run racetrack.

"And we proved that we really are the little racetrack that could.”

In 2019, the 12-month total Fonner Park mutuel handle for the year was just over $12 million dollars. Through May 27, 2020, the total handle reached $107,189,273.

Average daily mutuel handle during the no-spectator term of racing was $3.6 million dollars. Since March 23, TVG presented live coverage of every Fonner Park race except for Memorial Day, May 25; on that day, total handle was $779,170.

Armando Martinez won the leading jockey title with 69 wins. His wife Kelli Martinez finished second in the trainer standings with 36 wins. Isai Gonzalez won his third Fonner Park leading training title in fours years with 38 wins. His brother Adriel Gonzalez was the leading owner with 20 wins; Martinez Racing finished second with 17 wins.

Sleepy Eyes Todd was an emphatic winner of the Bosselman / Gus Fonner Stakes and was voted Horse of the Meet.

“We have no plans to race Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday during 2021. We sell out in our Clubhouse and Turf Club every Saturday of our racing season and our grandstand is full. Sundays have been evolving nicely for us and the Friday afterwork option for employees and businesses is good,” said Kotulak.

“I’m not developing horse racing if I have a sparse gathering of people in my facility on weekdays instead of a vibrant, fun horse racing vibe on weekends. Besides, the community of Grand Island has been vital to our success and it is important for Fonner Park to give back to the city. Restaurants, hotels and gas stations do very well when the races come to town.”

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