- Associated Press - Sunday, August 3, 2014

COLUMBUS, Neb. (AP) - Members of Columbus Exposition and Racing are entering their second season of live racing with a sense of optimism not shared by everyone in the horse racing industry.

They expect to see larger crowds at Platte County Agricultural Park this year, more horses and a competitive group of riders from as far away as Colorado and North Dakota, the Columbus Telegram reported (http://bit.ly/UOfyrF ).

The nonprofit group formed in April 2013 took over the Columbus Races last year after the Platte County Agricultural Society cut its ties to the live meet, which had been a money-losing venture in recent years.

Dan Clarey, one of five area men who came together to create Columbus Exposition and Racing, said the group’s first year in control of the live meet came and went without any big surprises.

With one year now under their belts, CER members are hoping to make an even bigger splash when the 2014 races kick off Friday at Ag Park.

According to the group, an average of about 1,500 people attended the races on each of the 16 days during last year’s live meet.

Although that number was lower than expected, they know there are several population bases that can be tapped to boost attendance for this year’s 16-day meet, which runs through Labor Day.

Only about one-third of last year’s spectators were from Columbus, according to CER member Tom Jahde, who is looking for strong attendance this year from both local residents and horse racing fans across the state.

“Northeast Nebraska was huge for us last year, and we’re hoping they’ll continue to come back,” he said.

CER also revamped its marketing and advertising strategies this year to target Omaha, Lincoln and other cities that don’t offer horse racing into August.

“We found out last year that we actually did pretty well getting people to come from out of town,” said Clarey, who believes the Columbus Races can attract even more people from outside the city in 2014.

Clarey expects to see attendance numbers that match 2013, at the very least, with hopes that the figures blow past last year’s mark.

“We anticipate as good this year or better,” he said.

CER member Russell Placzek also noted that blanket sponsorships and box seat sales have been strong so far and additional corporate sponsors signed on to support the races.

The group is banking on larger fields and skilled jockeys to increase excitement during the upcoming live meet, as well.

Clarey said the Columbus Races struggled to attract horses at the beginning of last year’s meet, a problem he hopes is resolved by having this year’s schedule set months in advance.

The number of horses running in Columbus should be up this year, based on early indications received by CER.

“Hopefully, we’ll get bigger fields this year,” said Placzek.

Live thoroughbred racing at Prairie Meadows in Iowa ends Aug. 9 and Arapahoe Park in Colorado wraps up its season eight days later.

Jahde is expecting a large number of horses from the race track near Denver - up to 70 or more - to run in Columbus.

“We’re going to have more horses from the Denver area than we’ve ever had in the past,” he said.

One of the leading riders from Turf Paradise in Arizona and a group of jockeys from North Dakota are also expected to compete here.

CER, which took over the simulcast betting at Ag Park on Jan. 1, will pay $12,000 plus utility costs to use the race track and simulcast facilities this year. The group receives all proceeds from the simulcast betting plus 30 percent of the concessions revenues during the live meet and a 12.5 percent take on all food and beverages sold in the simulcast rooms.

Still, the group relies on the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association to subsidize purses to keep live horse racing in Columbus.

“We’re definitely not doing this for our health,” Placzek said. “We’re just trying to keep racing here.”

Live horse racing will be held every Friday, Saturday and Sunday for the next five weeks at Ag Park, plus on Labor Day.

The post times for the first race are 6:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays and Labor Day with the gates opening about an hour before the first race.

Simulcast betting begins at 11 a.m. Thursdays through Sundays.

The admission price for the Columbus Races is $1 for adults ages 18 and older. Children can attend at no cost.

CER plans to give away one 32-inch, flat-screen television every Friday night during the live meet as part of a special promotion.

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Information from: Columbus Telegram, http://www.columbustelegram.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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