Ho-Chunk Forms WarHorse Gaming to Manage Forthcoming Casinos at Racetracks

Lance Morgan, President and CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc., said the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska has formed WarHorse Gaming LLC to build three casinos at horse racing tracks across Nebraska. (Courtesy Ho-Chunk, Inc.)

Ho-Chunk, Inc. has created a new entity, WarHorse Gaming LCC, to manage the three casinos it will build at the race track it owns in South Sioux City, Nebraska, and at tracks in Lincoln and Omaha. Plans call for a $300 million commitment.

“This represented a large investment for us,” Lance Morgan, President and CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc., told the Sioux City Journal. “I think it’s going to be a huge deal for Nebraska.”

On Tuesday, voters solidly approved three measures to allow the six licensed horse tracks in Nebraska to offer casino gaming. A third initiative passed permits the state to collect a 20% tax on gaming revenues. 

Ho-Chunk, Inc. put in the legwork to get the casino measure on the November general election ballot, funding the efforts to collect 475,000 signatures in support. Meanwhile a Nebraska Supreme Court 4-3 ruling also paved the way forward. The Court rejected arguments made by Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen, who claimed that the initiatives did not comply with rules under the state’s constitution and thus were invalid.

“Every state who touches Nebraska has some form of casino gambling, and so every state considers Nebraska a target demographic for their business,” Morgan said in a video posted by Keep the Money in Nebraska, a campaign supporting the gaming initiatives that voters in Nebraska approved Tuesday. “If we can just keep some of that money home, some of those taxes home, and some of those jobs and economic activity here, we’re going to improve.”

Ho-Chunk, Inc. has sought to open a casino and event center since it purchased Atokad Downs horse racing track in 2012. (Atokad Downs)

The new initiatives will keep Nebraskans in Nebraska, rather than crossing the border to gamble at casinos in Iowa.

“Since the Council Bluffs casinos have opened (in Iowa), they’ve brought in $11 billion in revenue—billion—and about $9 billion of that has come right from Nebraska,” Morgan continued. “To be honest, that makes me a little bit angry; I think that it’s obvious to everybody involved that they’re there to exploit Nebraska, to take money from Nebraska, to take jobs from Nebraska. And so I think it’s crystal clear that if you could move those gaming operations into Nebraska, we would get the tax dollars, we would get the jobs, and we would get the economic activities.”

Morgan’s vision can now become a reality. The measures to create racetrack gaming and allow casino gaming at tracks each received identical 64.9% statewide voter support, and the measure to implement a 20% state tax on gaming revenues received 68.6% statewide voter support. 

The legalization of casino gaming at racetracks directly benefits Ho-Chunk , Inc. In 2013, the Winnebago Tribal economic arm purchased Atokad Downs, a horse racing facility in Sioux City, Nebraska, that was originally built in 1956 with a grandstand capacity of 2,600 people and enough barns to accommodate nearly 500 horses. After purchasing the facility, Ho-Chunk, Inc. built a new track and now plans to add a casino and events center. 

Morgan previously noted that another key advantage of opening gaming operations in Nebraska under the initiatives is that revenues will not be sent to national and international conglomerates like those who own and operate many of the gaming operations in surrounding states.

“We’re talking about Nebraska entities investing in Nebraska so the jobs, the taxes, and the profits all stay in Nebraska,” Morgan said. “We keep all the money in Nebraska and that’s the big difference between us and what you’re seeing in other states.”

According to Keep the Money in Nebraska, the initiatives will bring in more than $65 million per year in gambling taxes to help defray property taxes, bolster local government budgets, and provide counseling to problem gamblers. Furthermore, casinos in Council Bluffs, Iowa, which has the largest concentration of Iowa’s gaming positions, have earned more than $11.1 billion over the last 23 years, with roughly 80 percent of it coming from Nebraskans. 

Keep the Money in Nebraska’s economic impact study also found that once they are up and running, racetrack casinos in Nebraska will be associated with more than 4,600 jobs and $320 million of the gross state product. They will contribute $40.5 million in state and local government revenues in addition to $65 million in gambling taxes. 

While those 4,600 jobs would be directly created by the gaming enterprises, Morgan sees widespread benefits.

“There are also going to be a lot of indirect jobs that are going to be created,” he said, including “the people who work with the gaming operations, the vendors, the horse trainers, the horse breeders, the farmers who support these operations—there’s going to be an economic ripple effect throughout the entire state.”

Racetracks can’t accept bets or wagers until a gaming commission is established and regulations are in place.