Horse track, casino project begins to take shape | Local


An artist’s rendering of the exterior for the Harra’s Columbus Racing and Casino that connects to a four-story hotel to the right.


Joe Morris has found his way into the fabric of Columbus rather quickly.

In four or five trips to the area, he’s earned his own regular guest appearance role among a group he compares to a 1980’s sitcom.

Morris, Caesar’s Entertainment senior vice president of racing, has been to Columbus to get the lay of the land, the people and the horse racing culture. More often than not, he ends up at Husker House.

No doubt he helps inspire the topic, but Morris said the conversation almost always turns to racing. He says the will is here, the want to is here and one day the talent will be here.

Morris has a vision that one day Harrah’s Columbus Racing and Casino will attract high-grade horses and jockeys out of California and other parts of the country for a major stakes race. He sees the potential for a Nebraska-bred horse to start its career in Columbus and go on to worldwide fame.

Most importantly, he sees an experience for race fans, bettors and families at a facility built with the local culture in mind.

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“I had the ribs last week, good. The steaks are excellent, the owners are very nice and the cast of characters is right out of ‘Cheers,'” Morris said about his time spent at Husker House. And I have yet to be able to buy a single beer; it doesn’t happen, and those people love racing. They talk racing. They like to talk racing. They play; most of them have accounts. in always changes to racing, and there might be 10-15 people in there sometimes.”

Morris’ vision for the track and other elements of the project began to take shape last month when Convergence, LLC, unveiled plans for the Harrah’s Columbus Racing and Casino to the Columbus Planning Commission. It was the first time his vision and that of Caesar’s Entertainment had schematics, artwork and renderings to make the project come to life.

Approval from the planning commission then the city council a few weeks later moved the project near the final steps leading up to groundbreaking. A few more matters, annexation and zoning, are expected to be addressed later this month.

The final hurdle is approval of the state’s rules and regulations regarding gambling, taxation and a gaming commission from the attorney general. Once that moves forward, the rules head to the desk of Gov. Pete Ricketts where a signature will put everything into motion.

According to schematics and art work, the gaming facility will cover 62,000 square feet, a gastro-pub restaurant, sports bar and sports book. The casino floor will include hundreds of slots and electronic games along the walls and interior sections. Table games will anchor the middle of the floor.

On the east side of the casino are the sportsbook and restaurant. Brew Brothers, as it will be named, will contain seating for over 100 inside and 75 more on an outside dining terrace. Also on the casino floor, to the north end, will be the Wishbones Bar.

There is a simulcast area separate from the casino floor on the extreme east end. Visitors can access the track either by going through the casino floor or the corridor that leads from the entrance past the simulcast area.

The race track will be constructed with a north-south orientation that runs nearly from Lost Creek Parkway all the way down to Highway 81. The track will be the only 1-mile horse racing surface within a 500-mile radius of Columbus. That element, Morris says, is the most important in making Columbus a major player in the future of Nebraska horse racing.

“We feel it’s important for that circuit to have that mile oval; that really is the gold standard of thoroughbred racing,” he said.

The casino is set to be built diagonal to the track at about the midway point of the front stretch and connect to a four-story hotel to the southeast.

According to the plans, the hotel will be 60,000 square feet and consist of 102 rooms, suites, an indoor pool, outdoor patio, fire pit and fitness center. The casino will be branded under the Harrah’s name while the hotel will be a combination of Fairfield by Marriott Inn and Suites and a Marriott Townplace Suites.

Foreman Lumber will be the general contractor for the hotel. Co-Owner Craig Foreman said the local builder hired a project manager within the last month as part of the proactive steps for getting ready. Through a prior relationship with the members that compromise Columbus Exposition and Racing, the horse racing license holders, Foreman became one of the top choices to build the hotel.

While the horse track and casino will be owned and operated by Caesar’s, the hotel will be operated by a hospitality company hired by Marriott and owned locally.

Casino Floor

A look inside the concept for the casino floor to the northeast showing some of the hundreds of slot machines, a middle area anchored by table games and the exterior of the Brooks Brothers restaurant.


“Hopefully it opens people’s minds that we do more than custom houses. We have the capability of building commercial projects, too,” Foreman said. “We’ve built banks and other projects. We want the public to keep us in mind that we can do these commercial projects, too.”

The hotel will be the largest project ever undertaken by Foreman Lumber.

“We’re ready to go,” CER member Tom Jackson said. “Now it’s just a matter of when we can get (the rules and regulations) and when we can start filling out applications, and getting permits to build, and getting permits for the design.”

The design concept was made by Montgomery Roth Architecture and Interior Design out of Houston. As can be seen in the presentation, specifically on a page that includes the colors, textures and furniture is a tribute to local history. Such landmarks as the Loup Power House, the original Power and Progress archway that welcomed motorists into the city, the Loup River Bridge, the Columbus Brewing Co. and other locations still standing or long gone were just some of the local influences.

The area designed with Columbus in mind more than any other is the space around the front stretch of the track, otherwise known as the “track apron.” For decades, Columbus race fans and visitors have preferred to congregate down along the track together, share a libation or two and engage in conversation.

“I’m a big apron guy,” Morris said. “You can be outside on a nice day with picnic tables and umbrellas and food trucks or portable bars. That’s where you want to be on a nice day. So, we’re going to have a walking ring with a paddock right there where people can get up close, look at the horses and see them before they go to the track. This apron is going to be pretty special.”

Brooks Brothers

The Brooks Brothers gastro-pub will feature seating for 100 indoors and 75 on an outdoor dining terrace.


Morris has overseen projects in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania and still works with the general managers at those locations. Long gone are the days of the mega grandstands. Television, internet and smart phones have all contributed to the changing landscape of horse betting. For about a generation, horse players haven’t had to go to the track to pick winners. Thus, the fan experience has widened to the more social aspects of a track.

“We’re going to have the best apron in the Midwest for horse racing with all kinds of benches and picnic tables and a big open area,” Jackson said. “We’ll be able to do a lot with the way that will built.”

As Kevin Costner heard in “Field of Dreams,” build it and he will come. Well in the case of Harrah’s Columbus, Morris said they will come, as in the fans, the money, better horses and higher purses.

He has a vision for a racing circuit in Nebraska that runs nine months out of the year that could perhaps include Columbus at the end and feature a state championship day of sorts – a Nebraska Derby or Nebraska Oaks to determine the best horses in the state.

It’s something he’s doing now with Hoosier Park in Anderson, Indiana. Stakes races at that track have attracted the attention of Fox Sports.

He has other ideas about improving the quality of Nebraska-bred horses, bringing better mares into the state and producing more stallions. Earlier this week, Morris had different types of dirt, clay and other surfaces poured out on the future spot to sit for a few months and check the results. Safety and maintenance are part of the focus as well.

It’s all in an effort to keep horseman and their stables in the state and return to the glory days of old.

Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha is one example from the past. The track where now sits much of the development of UNO facilities grew into one of America’s top 10 tracks when “Cheers” was on TV. It was a destination for horse fans from states that didn’t allow horse gambling.

And while Morris doesn’t have any misconceptions about Columbus ever becoming Omaha, that doesn’t mean it can’t carve out its own special place in the industry.

The length of the track, the surface, the amenities, the casino, the hotel and other potential businesses on the grounds will provide the opportunity. But it all starts with what happens on the track.

Hopes are to begin construction this spring.

“One thing that’s clear on the Nebraska side is, it’s racing first. Racing is what gives you the casino, not the other way around, and everybody seems to understand that,” Morris said. “It’s going to be a process, and it’s not going to be real pretty at the front end of it. But I do believe with everybody working together we can bring back racing to what the old Nebraska days were like.”

Casino Hotel

A four story casino with near 100 rooms, indoor pool, outdoor patio, fire pit and fitness center is planned for the site under the branding of Fairfield by Marriott Inn and Suites and Townplace Suites by Marriott.



The design concept reveals some of Columbus’ past that assisted in inspiring colors, wall coverings, fixtures and other aspects of the race track and casino project.


Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at [email protected]


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