Lincoln Race Course was originally slated to debut its new, seven-furlong track in September. Officials hoped the new track, the largest in the state, would reignite a live horse racing scene in Lincoln that has been essentially dormant since 2012.
But constructing a track of that size while contending with Nebraska weather proved to be the latest challenge in an industry that has faced many in recent years. After experiencing one of the wettest springs in state history, construction was delayed and the track was forced to push back its races to Saturday.
"Mother Nature always wins," said project manager Craig Wulf. "We go by what she says."
Despite the delays and challenges, Lincoln Race Course had the perfect day to debut its new track. Sandwiched between Nebraska football games and stretches of cold weather, the facility took the first steps toward making horse racing a main attraction in Lincoln once again on a warm, sun-splashed afternoon.
"I'm really excited to bring another source of entertainment back to Lincoln," Wulf said. "This is something that can provide a lot of infrastructure for the state of Nebraska and the horse racing industry."
Jockey Chris Fackler was impressed after walking the track for the first time before Saturday's two races.
"It's a good-sized oval and the longer lanes will help make the track safer for the horses and more exciting," he said.
Wulf has lived in Lincoln for 25 years, working in residential construction. He also serves on the board of the Nebraska Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, which owns both Lincoln Race Course and Horsemen's Park in Omaha.
He said the board decided to use profits from a strong year in 2016 at both locations to build a larger track in Lincoln. Until this year, the facility had only a one-furlong stretch used to run a handful of live races a year, enough to satisfy a Nebraska law stating that in order to hold simulcast wagering on races at other tracks, a facility must hold at least one live race per year.
Despite his background in construction, building a full-fledged track "was a first-time experience for us and the board," Wulf said.
So he needed some help. In addition to discussing the track with local horsemen, he sought advice for the design and composition from a track manager at Churchill Downs in Kentucky.
In 2018, the HBPA put together a budget and allowed contractors to bid on certain areas of the track. The board outsourced the work to several different companies, including Olsson, a Lincoln-based engineering and design firm that designed the template for the track. Gana, a trucking and excavation service, provided the materials for the base and surface of the track.
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In all, about $1.3 million was spent on the track, but that's only a fraction of what it will take to complete the project. Wulf estimated it would cost anywhere from $4 million to 6 million to construct 10 barns to house horses, as well as other barns for race day testing and offices. Grandstand seating is "an entirely bigger animal" that hasn't been looked at yet, Wulf said.
"This didn't happen overnight," he said. "It took a 2-3-year period to do that and it will take longer to complete the project, but to get this part done was very important and it kind of fuels the fire to complete it."
Even the surface itself promises to be an ongoing project.
Horse racing tracks can be extremely difficult to maintain, with even the smallest changes in temperature and moisture playing a role in the safety of both the horses and riders, according to Michael Peterson, director of the University of Kentucky Ag Equine program and executive director of the nonprofit Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory.
Peterson said the most important factor in creating a safe, reliable track comes down to consistency.
The base of a track is similar to what lies beneath a highway, Peterson says. It's a compact, hard surface that must remain consistent in its angles as horses transition from straightaways to turns. The cushion — the softer mix of clay and sand that lies on top of the base and serves as the surface for the track — should also remain consistent and level.
"One of the hardest things with water application on a dry course is getting a consistent amount of moisture," Peterson said. "It's a tough situation: You have to keep it perfect like a soccer pitch, but it’s a huge area."
Lincoln Race Course general manager Mike Newlin said with the new track, the facility plans to run races from late spring through the summer, which will almost certainly mean it has days with heavy rain.
Wulf said he knows there are going to be days when the track simply won't cooperate, but he trusts his maintenance staff to make the right decisions to keep it safe.
"There just may be some days where you have to cancel races when the track doesn’t cooperate," he said. "We run into those situations a lot in Nebraska, and it’s just part of the game."
Schuyler Condon, a 34-year-old trainer from Silver Creek, hopes the new track will mean less traveling to race. Since State Fair Park ended its extended live meets in 2012, Condon said he is only home four months out of the year. During the summer, he trains horses in Iowa, then spends time racing in Oklahoma in the fall.
"Time away from home is the hardest part," he said. "With this track, I don't have to be away all the time."
While the course only ran two one-furlong races Saturday because the finishing touches are still being put on the track's backstretch, Newlin was excited to get fans out to see the future of horse racing in the city. About 1,100 people showed up for Saturday's races.
"We’re anxious, but I think we’re excited," he said. "Everybody has worked hard to get to this point."
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