While much of the nation has slowed down during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sawyer native Jake Olesiak is nearly as busy as he’s ever been.

Much like past years, he’s competing at the Fonner Park horse track in Grand Island, Nebraska, where he has been the track’s lead rider — meaning he’s won the most races of any jockey — six of the last eight years.

He is near the top of the standings again this year and expects to finish first or second when the season ends at the end of the month.

“I haven’t been there as much this year because of all of this virus stuff and I have another job working at an ethanol plant,” Jake said. “When I’m not there as much it is harder to do as well but I’m doing pretty well.”

Jake, 32, works the overnight shift at the E Energy Adams ethanol plant outside Lincoln, Nebraska. Most days his wife, Megan, drives the two hours to Fonner, while Jake tries to catch up on sleep in the passenger seat.

It’s a major commitment, but nothing compares to the thrill of victory.

“The biggest thing is winning,” he said. “Winning a race is like nothing else. Coming down the stretch, it’s an adrenaline rush and something you can’t get enough of.”

Carlton County native Jake Olesiak races at Fonner Park in Grand Island, Neb. Olesiak, who has been the leading rider at Fonner Park six times, got his start racing at the Carlton County Fair in Barnum. (Photo courtesy of Jake Olesiak)
Carlton County native Jake Olesiak races at Fonner Park in Grand Island, Neb. Olesiak, who has been the leading rider at Fonner Park six times, got his start racing at the Carlton County Fair in Barnum. (Photo courtesy of Jake Olesiak)

The Olesiak family has always had a love of horse racing, Jake said. He and his brother Jordan started racing horses at the Carlton County Fair in Barnum as kids, and then Jordan moved on to racing at smaller tracks in South Dakota and then to Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minnesota.

“I did the Canterbury deal for about five years and then my older brother Jordan went down to Nebraska and I basically followed him there,” Jake said. “We both had a lot of success there. He stopped racing and went home, but I stayed behind and kept racing.”

While racing continues at Fonner Park, the pandemic has prevented fans from filling the grandstand, making the beginning and ends of races a surreal experience.

“It’s been really hard racing without fans,” Jake said. “It’s totally different. You come out of the paddock — there’s just nobody out there. When we are actually racing, it isn’t that different since you can’t really hear them anyway.”

It’s been difficult to race without fans, but Grand Island is also home to a JBS beef packing plant that has seen hundreds of coronavirus infections in the past month. At Fonner Park — less than two miles from the facility — precautions are everywhere. Jockeys are screened for fevers every day when they arrive, Jake said, and jockeys are spread further apart in the starting gate. In addition, everyone at the track wears masks at almost all times. Jockeys are only allowed to remove them when racing.

Normally, Jake’s three daughters and even some of his other family members would accompany him to the track, but the outbreak has changed their thinking.

“We can’t have them out there right now, which is fine because this virus is bigger than anybody thinks,” he said. “If people don’t take it seriously, it gets bad and it gets bad quick.”

Canterbury Park hopes to reopen in June, and Jake hopes to make his way to Shakopee to compete when it does. He also hopes to continue his annual tradition of returning to Barnum for the Carlton County Fair at the end of the summer.