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Opening Of First Permanent Nebraska ‘Racino’ Could Shift Gaming Ambitions

Written By Derek Helling | Updated:
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The work to convert horse racing tracks in Nebraska to full-fledged “racinos” is nearing completion. With Harrah’s Columbus soon to open its permanent facility and other similar launches on the horizon, regulated gambling on an in-person basis will be more robust than ever in Nebraska.

That represents a shift for the gaming industry in the state from the introduction of these facilities to their maintenance and perhaps further expansion of gambling in Nebraska. While there is no immediate push for expansion, the operation of the state’s racinos might create an appetite for it.

Harrah’s Columbus set to break the ice in Nebraska’s gaming industry

According to Joe Dejka of the Omaha World-Herald1, Nebraska regulators have given Harrah’s Columbus approval to open its permanent facility to the public as soon as May 13. The track began offering limited slots and table games in a temporary facility in June 2023.

The permanent racino (horse racing track also offering other kinds of gaming like slots and table games) will boast a fuller complement. That will include 400 slots, 11 gaming tables, and a Caesars-branded combination racebook/sportsbook.

However, live horse racing will not begin at the site until Aug. 16 at the earliest. In the meantime, simulcast wagering should be available for patrons. Harrah’s Columbus will be the first of as many as six racinos that Nebraska voters authorized in 2020 to open in a permanent venue.

Right now, three other Nebraska racetracks offer casino gaming in temporary accommodations. They are ready to open their permanent facilities within the next year, however. This cavalcade that will begin with Harrah’s Columbus could mark a shift for Nebraska’s gambling industry.

The state of online gambling in Nebraska

At this time, online gambling for real money in Nebraska is very limited when it comes to doing so legally. The Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission does not issue licenses to accept wagers on equine or human sports online. By the same token, Nebraska regulators do not allow for regulated online casino play, either.

Although many Nebraskans may want to gamble online legally, changing the status quo in the state will require some work. Most poignantly, the Nebraska Constitution would have to be amended to allow for such gaming.

There has been some preliminary movement toward that end. In February, a coalition of five gaming companies conducted research on Nebraskans’ favorability toward supporting a potential amendment to the state’s constitution that would narrowly allow for online betting on human sports.

Andrew Wegley of The Lincoln Journal-Star reported2 that Ho-Chunk Inc. CEO Lance Morgan shared that “57% of respondents signaled support for the constitutional amendment.” Ho-Chunk is the parent company of WarHorse Gaming, which operates racinos in Lincoln and Omaha. Ho-Chunk was part of the coalition behind the survey.

Despite that favorable result, it doesn’t look like there will be any immediate push to create a regulated framework for online casinos in Nebraska in the immediate future.

Industry shift might still be premature for online gambling

Morgan also shared with Wegley that the level of support wasn’t sufficient for the coalition’s stakeholders to commit further resources to push for legalized online gambling in Nebraska right now.  The other stakeholders like BetMGM and FanDuel would likely need to commit significant financial resources to advocacy on a referendum.

Had the survey indicated support in the 60th or 70th percentile, the parties might have felt better about not wasting those funds. As such, though, these gaming companies are punting on the issue for now.

That might be a wise move for another reason. With physical racinos across Nebraska just starting to open their permanent facilities, the appetite in the state for further gaming expansion might be small. Fears that online casinos could cannibalize those racinos’ revenue might be at their most vehement with these facilities just beginning to emerge.

Gaming companies might be better served in waiting until racinos like Harrah’s Columbus are more established in their markets to broach the subject of online gambling. When the state begins to see the impact of tax revenue from racinos at their full potential, building upon that might be an easier sell.

It seems that the operators of Nebraska racinos will support online gambling expansion if that conversation does happen. That doesn’t mean everyone in the state will be on board, however.

Political will could be set against online gambling in Nebraska

If you would like to see online casinos legalized in Nebraska, it’s a positive sign that companies like BetMGM and FanDuel partnered with Ho-Chunk on research toward that end. That suggests that Ho-Chunk would not oppose such a change.

In addition, the operators of Grand Island Casino & Resort (Elite Resorts) and Harrah’s Columbus (Caesars) are involved in online gambling in other states. Thus, they are unlikely to stand in the way of potential online casino legalization as well.

There could still be significant resistance in terms of the state’s political landscape, however. In 2020, significant political figures like Nebraska’s then-governor Pete Ricketts publicly opposed3 the measures to legalize casino gaming at racinos.

While voters approved the amendment regardless, there are ways that political forces in Nebraska could act as obstacles in future circumstances. That could include implementing legislation restricting online casinos or delaying the enactment of enabling legislation if voters approve of such amendments.

Gaming industry proponents would likely begin with online sports betting only in a first foray into the state before pushing for the legalization of online casinos later. The fact that brick-and-mortar racinos are beginning to open their permanent facilities in Nebraska does mean that gaming companies can shift their emphases to other concerns.

At some point, that may include legalizing online casino play. That point doesn’t seem imminent, though.

Sources

  1. Nebraska’s first ‘permanent’ casino to open in May in Columbus ↩︎
  2. Nebraska casino exec: Online sports gambling won’t be on November ballot ↩︎
  3. Osborne, Ricketts warn against casino gambling’s social costs ↩︎
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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is the assistant managing editor of PlayUSA. Helling focuses on breaking news, including finance, regulation, and technology in the gaming industry. Helling completed his journalism degree at the University of Iowa and resides in Chicago

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