Nebraska's first casino expected to open Saturday through temporary WarHorse Lincoln property

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Nebraska is expected to see its first casino open Saturday morning in Lincoln, pending likely approval by the state gaming commission. A temporary facility at the Lincoln Race Course Thoroughbred track is scheduled to make its debut at 10:30 a.m., with more than 400 slot machines ready to welcome bettors.

“We have every expectation that we’ll get a license,” said Lance Morgan, president and CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and operator of WarHorse. The Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission will meet Friday afternoon to consider final approval of the casino license of WarHorse Gaming Lincoln.

For its temporary casino, WarHorse converted a simulcast/sports bar facility to accommodate 433 slot machines. The facility will be open while a $200 million casino and hotel complex is built around it, just off U.S. 77 in southwest Lincoln, reports Nebraska Examiner

The upcoming opening is the final step in a road to casino gaming that started when Nebraska voters overwhelmingly approved a gaming expansion in 2020. The plan allows so-called racinos at licensed racetracks in the Cornhusker State, which include Omaha, Lincoln, Columbus, Grand Island, South Sioux City, and Hastings.

Norfolk and Ogallala, among other communities, have also expressed interest in joining the new casino industry, but for the time being it is being limited to existing tracks. Before any new racino is allowed, the gaming commission is set to consider the impact of additional gambling on communities and other facilities, as per a recent law.

While WarHorse Lincoln is set to be the first state casino, others are set to soon join it. Construction is set to begin on a second WarHorse property at Omaha’s Horseman’s Park, although a temporary casino won’t be ready there until April or May, Lynne McNally, CEO of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, told the cited source.

Given Horsemen’s Park is a 28-year-old facility, much of it must be torn down to accommodate construction around it. The temporary Omaha casino will be located in the infield of the racetrack, McNally told Nebraska Examiner. It is the second of three WarHorse casino projects, which also include a gambling venue at the former Atokad Park racetrack in South Sioux City.

According to Morgan, the South Sioux City casino is “on the back burner,” only to be pursued when the permanent casinos are completed in Lincoln and Omaha, two events set to occur in late 2024. The Ho-Chunk Inc. CEO further said “we’re spending every penny and effort” to develop the first two casinos.

The permanent facilities are set to not include slot machines but also casino table games. According to McNally, the Lincoln facility could generate about $5 million a year in property tax relief – and when fully implemented, casino gambling could add about $100 million statewide to a state-run property tax relief program, adds Nebraska Examiner.

However, as for the immediate future, McNally said she’s not sure what to expect from Lincoln's casino opening day. WarHorse has done virtually no advertising of the date, and since there is no home Nebraska football game on Saturday, there won’t be thousands of extra people in town, reports Lincoln Journal Star.

Of the 433 slot machines in WarHorse Lincoln, McNally told the cited source that they range from classic slots found at the casinos in Council Bluffs, Iowa, to new games that will be only available at the Lincoln property. There is a plan to add sports betting at the temporary casino once rules for it are finalized, but table games will be only introduced at the permanent casino.

As for other non-WarHorse casinos, Fonner Park in Grand Island hopes to open a temporary venue with 300 slots sometime around Thanksgiving; while Caesars announced this week a lease with the Platter County Agricultural Society to operate a temporary Columbus casino with 250 machines. However, no timeline for opening has yet been announced.

In preparation for the opening, Nebraska problem gamblers are being encouraged to file a voluntary “self-exclusion” form. The program, which is being operated through the state gaming commission, bars their admission to the casino, keeping away the temptation to gamble.

Similar programs are already operational in other states such as Iowa, where between 8,000 and 10,000 people at any one time are on the “don’t amid” list. Self-excluded individuals that somehow still manage to get inside of a casino face forfeiting any winnings, or even being charged with criminal trespass. Problem gamblers can register through the commission’s site.