20 AMERICAN RACEHORSE • SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2016
Omaha World-Herald/John Savage
Courtesy Chris Kotulak
Courtesy Joe Anania
who experienced the ‘Aks Magic,’ many of them get glassy-eyed recollecting the gem that it was. “There is a piece of my heart that remains attached to Nebraska horse racing,” added Kotulak, who now serves as an analyst and TV host at Remington Park in Oklahoma City. Thanks to its location near the center of the continental United States, AkSar-Ben was a major part of horse racing in the Midwest and became a seasonal stopping place for some of the region’s greatest trainers and jockeys. One of the most prominent horsemen to frequent Jack Van Berg (right) and Don Von Hemel are two of the many training icons Ak-Sar-Ben is Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who has won a Kentucky who raced in Omaha. Derby, two renewals of the Preakness Stakes, a Breeders’ cumference and featured “an imposing grandstand of steel and concrete,” as Daily Racing Form reported at the time. Cup Classic and more than 6,400 other races, ranking The first race meet was small, distributing a little more him as the fourth-leading trainer in history by races won. For many years, Van Berg’s dominance of Ak-Sar-Ben than $400 in purse money per race, but it was embraced by knew no bounds; in fact, he was the leading trainer at Akhorsemen and fans alike. The newly constructed barns— which would soon be applauded for their quality—filled Sar-Ben for a staggering 19 consecutive years from 1959 rapidly in advance of the meet, and fan attendance was through 1977. For good measure, he added another title strong throughout the eight days. The races were also at- in 1984. Like Kotulak, Van Berg has fond memories of Ak-Sartractive from a wagering standpoint; Daily Racing Form later noted that the five pari-mutuel wagering machines Ben and the racing fans that supported the track. at the track were “found inadequate to handle the volume of business.” From these humble beginnings, Ak-Sar-Ben would rise through the ranks to become a prominent racetrack on the national stage, but even after decades of operation, Ak-Sar-Ben retained its special identity. “I think what made Ak-Sar-Ben special was that their summertime meet was a working vacation for horsemen and a genuine vacation destination for race fans,” remembered Chris Kotulak, who worked at Ak-Sar-Ben for 15 years and served as the track announcer in 1994. “The facility was simply magical the way it was nestled into a cozy, quiet, tree-filled neighborhood, yet with a number of popular steakhouses nearby. I think the 4 p.m. weekday post-time was also very popular with the race fans. Of course, horse racing is much From 1921 to 1995, some of the best horses and jockeys in different now. But to this day, when you speak to someone the sport broke from a starting gate at Ak-Sar-Ben.
Published on Sep 14, 2016
This issue of American Racehorse magazine features a long-form article about the magic of Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska, plus a lo...