Jake Olesiak’s transformation starts at 8 a.m. after he punches out from his overnight shift at an ethanol factory. His steel-toe boots go into the trunk, as do his mask, face shield and hard hat. Black riding boots come out, then the goggles and finally his Minnesota Vikings ball cap.
Behind the wheel is his wife, Megan. For the next two hours, Olesiak, 32, tries to sleep with his hat pulled down over his eyes as Megan drives the S.U.V. westward from Firth, Neb., to the meatpacking town Grand Island, with little besides cornfields and the interstate to keep her company.
Olesiak, a production supervisor at E Energy Adams, which makes fuel from local grain, is considered an essential worker. He is more than that at Fonner Park, a tiny jewel box of a horse track in the heartland. He is a money rider, perennially atop the jockey standings.
Olesiak has won more than 1,000 races and has nearly $7 million in purse earnings. He has dreamed of riding in the Kentucky Derby, and for a decade, he pursued it full time. He has hung his equipment, or tack, in jock rooms in the Dakotas, Iowa, Ohio and Canada.
But soon after his second daughter was born, he decided to take a full-time job and ride the boutique Nebraska circuit — 59 days of racing for purses that rarely topped $5,000 a race. He competes not atop thoroughbreds sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the auction rings of Kentucky, but with horses that cost far less, sometimes less than $1,000.
“Life kind of happened when my girls came along,” said Olesiak, whose third daughter was born 18 months ago. “I decided that I love my family and my life here, and I guess Nebraska just couldn’t push me away.”
When the health crisis closed cities, states, sports and much of the rest of the economy, Chris Kotulak, the chief executive of Fonner Park, pitched city officials on allowing the track to conduct racing with stringent health protocols and empty grandstands. Grand Island, where a meat processing plant less than two miles from the track has had a spike in coronavirus cases, approved the plan. In a parking lot near the track, the National Guard has been operating a coronavirus testing center for the public.
“My thinking was that if I asked them to shut down completely, the horse people would not have anywhere to go to make a living and they were not going to be able to feed the horses,” Roger Steele, the mayor of Grand Island, said. “It was a balance of being safe while at the same time being fair.”
Masks are required, and jockeys have their temperatures taken each day as they report to the track. The horses are saddled in the paddock in two shifts, and at least one stall is kept empty between horses. No one has tested positive for the virus at the track, Kotulak, the chief executive, said.
To gain more attention for Fonner’s races, Kotulak moved its racing days from the weekend, when they competed against bigger tracks in Florida and Arkansas, to late afternoon on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
That meant Fonner Park was one of the few games in town on TVG Network, a horse racing channel and betting platform in 45 million homes. While the sport has many detractors, horse racing delivers a loyal audience of gamblers who will bet with both fists, especially at a time when gambling opportunities are scarce.
Since making the switch to weekdays, Fonner Park has averaged more than $2.8 million in bets each day, more than eight times its action from a year ago. Its wagering total of $71.3 million over the past three months dwarfed last year’s February-through-April total of $7.5 million.
In April 2019, 5 percent of TVG’s customers bet on races held at Fonner Park. Last month, 40 percent of them did.
In the tortured economics of horse racing, however, the additional action does not represent a windfall for the off-the-beaten-path track, which runs as a nonprofit corporation, operates a 6,000-seat entertainment arena and hosts the Nebraska State Fair.
In normal times, Fonner keeps 20 cents of every dollar bet on its weekend dates and reaps significant concession revenue. The track averaged 6,500 people on Saturdays and often approached that on Sundays.
Now, without fans gambling directly at the track, it keeps only 3 cents of each dollar wagered through platforms like TVG by homebound gamblers across the globe, no matter how coveted its races.
“I have to take care of this year’s budget and have purses and operating costs for next year,” said Kotulak, an Omaha native with a colorful racing career. He worked his way up through the grits-and-hard-toast circuits of Nebraska, Oklahoma and Louisiana by calling races, selling sponsorships and doing television analysis.
“But it is nice to have this moment with a lot of eyeballs on us and to remind people that Nebraska has a rich history of horse racing,” he added.
In the 1960s, there were seven racetracks in the state and 161 days of racing that attracted horsemen and fans from across the Midwest. The Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg, a Nebraskan, was the leading trainer from 1959 to 1977 at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha before winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes with Alysheba in 1987. One of his assistants, Bill Mott, a South Dakotan, became the youngest trainer to enter the Hall of Fame and won last year’s Kentucky Derby with Country House after Maximum Security, who crossed the finish line first, was disqualified for interference.
In the mid-1980s, Ak-Sar-Ben (Nebraska spelled backward) was 10th in the nation in racetrack attendance, averaging 25,000 each weekend day. Many fans spilled over into a nearby coliseum, where they bet and watched the races on a movie screen.
In the paddock of Fonner Park, two jockeys-turned-racing-officials are testaments to those glory days. Fred Ecoffey, 82, and Wayne Anderson, 72, are both members of the state’s horse racing hall of fame.
Ecoffey, a Lakota Sioux whose grandmother performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows, was the leading rider at Fonner for years. Anderson earned the nickname Avis because, as a car rental advertising campaign proclaimed, “We try harder,” yet he was a habitual runner-up to Ecoffey’s Hertz.
The scale of Nebraska horse racing may have diminished, but not its culture. The Martinez family is up each day at dawn tending to their 40-horse stable, just as Kelli Martinez, 49, did when she was growing up in a racetrack family in Shelby, Neb.
“It is hands-on,” she said. “Nobody does anything halfway.”
She sets the schedule and trains the horses. Her husband, Armando, 53, gallops them in the morning and rode them well enough so far to enter this week in the top spot in Fonner’s jockey standings with 56 wins and $290,000 in purse earnings.
Their son, Damian, is his father’s agent and hustles mounts for him if his mother does not have a horse for him to ride. Damian’s girlfriend, Alexis Burghardt, runs the shed row, caring for and feeding the horses, most of which are owned by the family.
They own a farm in central Kentucky, a purchase made from necessity several years ago as opportunities on the Nebraska circuit dwindled. During the four-month meet in Grand Island, home becomes a pair of trailers in the motor court next to the track. When the family was in Nebraska full time, they would pull the trailers to all four corners of the state, from February to November.
Horses trained by Kelli Martinez have made more than 5,000 starts and won more than 450 races. She has earned just north of $3 million in purse money. That is impressive considering races at Fonner Park offer an average purse of $5,000 a race, or $50,000 a day. At the recently completed meeting at Oaklawn in Arkansas, the average purse size per day was about 10 times that, over $525,000.
The move to Kentucky has been challenging as the Martinezes try to compete at tracks like Churchill Downs and Keeneland. The purse money is better, but so is the competition.
“Everyone asks why we come back here,” Kelli Martinez said. “I tell them it’s home and that’s where we do well financially as a family. And don’t think this isn’t a tough little meet. We got outfits here from Louisiana, Oklahoma, Colorado. You just can’t ship in here and expect to win.”
Ask the trainer Doug O’Neill, who won the Kentucky Derby twice. Last month, he shipped a horse named Fight On to run in the Bosselman Pump and Pantry/Gus Fonner Stakes, Fonner Park’s richest race at $50,000. He finished fourth.
Perhaps Jake Olesiak will renew his Kentucky Derby dreams later, once his daughters are grown. Megan Olesiak has bred and trained thoroughbreds, and like most here, she grew up around the animals.
For now, though, he is grateful to work for a company that allows him to also compete. He has won six of the last eight jockey titles at Fonner Park and entered the week sitting a close second to Armando Martinez. He appreciates Megan for driving him around Nebraska. Come summer, the trips get longer: seven hours to Chippewa Downs in Belcourt, N.D.
He also likes the attention he is getting from friends across the country who watch and bet on him from afar. With Churchill Downs set to open on Saturday and other tracks around the country planning to go online, Olesiak knows he and his small-track friends will fade from the spotlight.
“I try my hardest whether there’s anyone looking or not,” he said. “There is nothing better than being on top of a horse and winning a race.”