Nebraska’s first casino expected to open Saturday, pending likely OK of license

Problem gamblers can file voluntary ‘self-exclusion’ paperwork to keep themselves out

By: - September 21, 2022 4:45 pm
Lincoln casino

A $200 million casino is planned at the Lincoln Race Course by WarHorse, a subsidiary of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. (Courtesy of WarHorse)

LINCOLN — Nebraska’s first casino is expected to open Saturday morning in the Capital City, pending approval by the state gaming commission.

A temporary casino, located at the Lincoln Race Course Thoroughbred track, is scheduled to open at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, with more than 400 slot machines ready to go.

Lance Morgan
Lance Morgan, president and CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc., parent company of WarHorse Gaming. (Courtesy of Ho-Chunk Inc.)

“We have every expectation that we’ll get a license,” said Lance Morgan, president and CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic wing of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and operator of WarHorse.

In preparation for the opening, problem gamblers are being urged to file a “voluntary self-exclusion form” to bar their admission to the casino and the temptation to gamble.

“The power of this addiction is as intense as any addiction out there,” said Mike Sciandra, a Lincoln-based gambling counselor who is himself a recovering gambling addict.

The Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission will meet Friday afternoon to consider final approval of the casino license of WarHorse Gaming Lincoln.

433 slot machines in temporary facility

WarHorse has converted a simulcast/sports bar facility to accommodate 433 slot machines while a $200 million casino and hotel complex is built around it, just off U.S. 77 in southwest Lincoln.

Construction will also begin soon on a second casino, at Omaha’s Horseman’s Park, but a temporary casino won’t be ready for occupancy until April or May, said Lynne McNally, CEO of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

Horsemen’s Park is a 28-year-old facility, McNally said, and must be almost torn down to accommodate construction around it. The temporary Omaha casino will be located in the infield of the racetrack, she said.

A third WarHorse casino project, at the former Atokad Park racetrack in South Sioux City, is “on the back burner,” according to Morgan, and will be pursued when the permanent casinos are completed in Lincoln and Omaha, which is expected in late 2024.

‘Spending every penny’

“We’re spending every penny and effort we have to develop these two,” Morgan said.

The permanent casinos will include table games, such as blackjack, as well as slot machines, officials said.

Slot machines on the casino floor at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa, Florida (Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

McNally projected that the Lincoln facility will generate about $5 million a year in property tax relief for the City of Lincoln and Lancaster County. It’s been estimated that casino gambling, when fully implemented, could add $100 million statewide to a property tax relief program run by the state.

Also on Saturday, the Lincoln Race Course will be officially renamed “Legacy Downs,” which McNally said is in honor of the long-running Thoroughbred horse racing industry in the state.

Nebraska voters approved pari-mutual betting on horses back in 1934, and for decades, Nebraska was the only state that offered such gambling between Chicago and California.

Self-exclusion program

McNally and Sciandra urged Nebraskans who are problem gamblers to register with the self-exclusion program, which is being operated through the state gaming commission.

Sciandra said several states, including Iowa, operate such registries, which allows a casino to bar entrance to someone who has a gambling problem. He said those who somehow get insideof a casino face forfeiting any winnings or being charged with criminal trespass.

“We want to make sure that the temptation isn’t there from the get-go,” Sciandra said of the self-exclusion registry.

In Iowa, between 8,000 and 10,000 people at any one time on are the “don’t admit” to casinos list, according to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission. Sciandra said that generally, 1-2% of all gamblers have been diagnosed as addicts, with an additional 4-6% deemed problem gamblers.

To register, go to the racing commission’s website.

Voter approval in 2020

Casino gambling was approved overwhelmingly by Nebraska voters in 2020, allowing them at licensed racetracks in the state.

The so-called “racinos” are envisioned at the state’s existing racetracks in Omaha, Lincoln, Columbus, Grand Island, South Sioux City and Hastings. Other communities, such as Norfolk and Ogallala, have also expressed interest.

Before any new racinos are allowed, the State Racing and Gaming Commission must consider the impact of additional gambling on communities, horse racing and other gambling facilities.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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