02/23/2010 12:00AM

Fonner kicks off shortened Nebraska season


GRAND ISLAND, Neb. - The live racing season in Nebraska gets under way Friday as Fonner Park opens for a 31-day season that runs through May 8. The meet will be four days shorter than a year ago, as four Sunday cards have been cut from the schedule but the number of weekends of racing remains the same.

The state circuit was trimmed 11 days to 91 this year because of the elimination of Thursday racing in Lincoln and with Atokad Downs running a single day after hosting weekend festivals the past few years. The biggest change on the circuit comes in Lincoln, where Omaha Exposition and Racing has taken over the management responsibilities at Lincoln Race Course, which was formerly known as Lincoln State Fair. The state fair will now be held at Fonner.

That change has resulted in major changes on the grounds at Fonner Park as construction of several expansive new exposition buildings is in progress on the western side of the property. The view for those at the races will be much the same, but there will several new faces trackside.

Troy Bethke, who bases his operations at Canterbury Park in Minnesota, will be a strong presence in the trainer ranks, and he will be joined by newcomers Gerald Jones and Dudley Graham, among others. Chuck Turco, who trained Nebraska-bred Dazzling Falls when the colt became Nebraska's all-time money-winning horse in the mid-1990s, will be in charge of a strong barn consisting of many horses formerly trained by suspended horsemen David Anderson.

Anderson, who won the past four training titles here, was handed a three-year suspension after three of his horses tested positive for banned substances last summer.

Regulars Larry Donlin, Milton Gaede, Steve Hall, Kim Veerhusen, and Jim Compton are among the many familiar faces returning.

In the jockey ranks, Jesus Ponce returns to defend the title he shared last year with Chris Fackler. While Fackler will not be back this year, regulars Damon Leeds, Mike Ziegler, Armando Martinez, Luis Ranilla, and brothers Jordan and Jake Olesiak will comprise the nucleus of the riding colony.

In what many hope will be a boost for the track, the Fonner Park signal will be available on the Television Games Network wagering platform. Although Nebraska residents cannot wager through account services, it's hoped the national exposure of the signal will attract betting from out of state.