- Associated Press - Saturday, May 14, 2016

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (AP) - Bruce Swihart was thrown right into the fire in his first year as CEO at Fonner Park.

It turned out to be a rather eventful year, The Grand Island Independent (https://bit.ly/1NpJ2qT ) reported. It began with contract negotiations between the Fonner Park board and the horsemen before the season and ended with the equine herpesvirus that sent the entire red barn into a quarantine for the last three weeks of the season.

“It was an adventure,” Swihart said. “Every day is an adventure.”

The 31-day Fonner Park meet came to a close Saturday with an 11-race card and the simulcast of the Kentucky Derby as well. For the second straight year, Fonner didn’t lose a day to the weather or track conditions.

“Two years running that we didn’t lose any days,” Swihart said. “That doesn’t happen very often anymore. We usually lose some due to the weather. I can’t think of a much better start weather-wise than we had for the first three weeks of the season. That was really helpful. It got us off to a good start.”

Things were rolling right along, going about as well as could be expected, when on April 17 three possible cases of the herpesvirus showed up in David Anderson’s stable in the red barn.

One horse was euthanized and two were quarantined. When the tests came back, all three were positive.

That caused no small amount of anxiety for everyone at Fonner Park. There were questions early on with no answers.

“How bad is it? How wide spread is it? Swihart said. “Those were answers we just didn’t have. We were kind of on pins and needles those first few days.”

That put Fonner Park in lock-down mode. Horses couldn’t leave, and no trainers wanted to bring any in even though they could as long as they were willing to stay until the quarantine is lifted.

And those horses in the big red barn were not allowed to race the final eight days of the meet.

“The quarantine with our last three weeks of the season impacted everybody, from management down to the horsemen,” Swihart said. “Especially the horses over in the red barn that were quarantined and haven’t been able to run or collect any prize money at all.”

In such a difficult situation, Swihart said there will always be disagreements as to how things should be handled.

“There were some hard feelings at times, but overall it went about as well as could be expected.” Swihart said. “It wasn’t business as usual. When the quarantine was instigated by the state veterinarian and the ag department, we had to abide by what they wanted us to do.”

The Nebraska rules call for a 21-day quarantine. The two horses that tested positive were retested a week ago and passed. They will be tested again Monday, and if the tests are negative, the quarantine will be lifted, maybe as soon as Tuesday.

But it was a tough time for everyone involved.

“It was a crisis for horse people,” head steward Bob Pollock said. “I think it was a crisis for Bruce. I know it was a crisis for (racing secretary) Doug (Schoepf) writing races trying to get the races filled. I think Fonner has been really lucky looking at that herpes thing because that was hurtful business-wise, whether you were a trainer or Bruce Swihart or anybody in between because we want the highest quality of races we can provide.

“We know our purses aren’t as big as Saratoga or Churchill Downs, but we’re doing what we can.”

The horsemen needed to dig in to keep things as clean and healthy as possible, and that’s just what they did.

“Once again I commend all the horsemen for all the bio-security things they did,” Swihart said. “We complied with what the state asked us to do.

“The most important thing was to keep all the horses safe. It obviously affected how many races we could have on some days and it affected the size of the fields.”

Schoepf said the horsemen did what they could to help fill races. There were some shorter fields and fewer races on Fridays and Sundays, but they were still able to put together enough races to somewhat fill the cards.

“The horsemen were really good helping us fill races by running their horses back maybe a little more often than they normally would,” Schoepf said. “We had all those horses in the red barn we lost. Some of the trainers that entered a lot of horses each week were in the red barn, so that really cut into our numbers.”

The quarantine prevented trainers from bringing any ship-ins to Fonner for the Bosselman Pump & Pantry/Gus Fonner Stakes. Because of that, the purse was cut from $75,000 down to $30,000.

Swihart said the decision to cut the Bosselman purse was made jointly among himself, the racing department and Charlie Bosselman.

“The big determining factor was the reason for the added purse money was to attract out-of-state horses,” Swihart said. “Once the quarantine was put on us, there was no way anyone was going to ship in, so we felt it was in the best interest of everyone to drop the purse. It was still our biggest purse of the year.”

When asked if the purse would be raised back up to $75,000 next year, Swihart said: “Definitely. Without a doubt.”

Through it all, Swihart said everyone at Fonner did what they needed to do.

“This has never happened to us in our 60-plus year history, especially to such major proportions,” he said. “I guess sometimes when the tough get going, you find out what you’re really made of. I credit everyone from horsemen to our ground crew. If something had to get done, do something differently, they all did that.”

Through it all, the fans kept coming. Saturdays were packed. Swihart said it looked like the old days.

The on-track mutuel handle was up four percent from last year heading into the final day of racing, while the overall handle was up two percent.

“Coupled with all the hardships in a lot of cases, we’ve been able to maintain that level of wagering here at the track,” Swihart said. “I’ve said all along the people in Central Nebraska really love live horse racing. I think this year proved it.”


Information from: The Grand Island Independent, https://www.theindependent.com

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