10/30/2003 12:00AM

Nebraska sets 2004 racing dates

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The Nebraska State Racing Commission gave final approval for a 2004 live race schedule of 103 days at its meeting in Lincoln on Wednesday afternoon.

The only shift in the schedule from 2003 will be at Horsemen's Atokad Downs. The track's two-day meet will move from July to September, when it will close out the 2004 Nebraska racing season.

Racing at State Fair Park in Lincoln was scheduled as usual despite ongoing concerns over the status of the Nebraska State Fair. The Nebraska State Fair Board, which oversees all operations on the grounds, is scheduled to meet in mid-November.

At the meeting, the State Fair's management team must present a plan either to meet the State Fair's upcoming $400,000 payroll and operating expenses, or to cease operations on the state-owned property. Management has been seeking money from the private sector in the aftermath of state budget cuts.

Horse racing and simulcasting have been the only profitable ventures in recent years at State Fair Park. The fair itself is now carrying a debt of more than $1 million in addition to its upcoming budget crunch. If the State Fair is discontinued, the status of horse racing on the grounds is uncertain.

Dennis Oelschlager, executive secretary of the Nebraska Racing Commission, said no official commission business had been brought up concerning State Fair Park, but he said he was hopeful that a plan could be worked out.

The 2004 schedule will start at Fonner Park in Grand Island with a 38-day meet, Feb. 14 to May 8. The opening weekend will run Saturday-Monday to include President's Day, and then the track will revert to its normal Friday-Sunday schedule.

Lincoln State Fair picks up with a 34-day meet, May 14 to July 11. Horsemen's Park in Omaha will then offer its four-day festival of racing on July 15-18. Columbus Races will offer 25 days from July 23 to Sept. 12, and Horsemen's Atokad Downs in South Sioux City will run Sept. 18-19.