Courtesy Chris Kotulak
Van Berg agrees that the expansion of gambling in other states hurt Ak-Sar-Ben, particularly the coming of slot machines at tracks like Prairie Meadows. “They were going to lose out if they didn’t get [slot machines] in Nebraska,” he said. “Prairie Meadows was bankrupt at the time before they got them.” In 1995, after 75 years of racing, Ak-Sar-Ben held its final meet. On August 7, a larger-than-usual crowd of 6,039 turned out for a 10-race card that included six stakes races. Herb Riecken won two races; Don Von Hemel, a 10time leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben, won another. And at 8:03 p.m., a dozen horses left the starting gate to contest the Nebraska Breeders’ Sweepstakes Sophomore Stakes. Just over a minute and 45 seconds later, a Nebraska-bred gelding named Cody’s Ninja Star crossed the wire first by a half-length. It was the last race ever held at Ak-Sar-Ben. The great track remained in use as a simulcast facility through 1998, after which it was developed by Douglas The monument for 1935 Triple Crown winner Omaha was County, which had purchased the track in 1992. Accordonce near the Ak-Sar-Ben grandstand entrance. Although ing to Van Berg, Nebraska-based owner and breeder Don he never raced at Ak-Sar-Ben, Omaha stood in Nebraska Everett tried to buy the track, but the county wouldn’t at the end of his stallion career and appeared at the track sell it. several times. Omaha was buried on the track grounds in Said Kotulak, “Many believe the intent all along was to 1959, but as the clubhouse was expanded in later years his reform the area into a new space, and they did. It is now exact burial location was lost and his remains have never part of the University of Nebraska–Omaha campus, and been found. it has transformed into an entertainment area with retail in attendance was mirrored by a decline in the quality and apartment living.” In October 2004, the great steel and concrete grandstand of racing. One by one, Ak-Sar-Ben’s graded stakes races lost their grades; the stakes purses, once strong enough to was demolished and Ak-Sar-Ben faded into history. But draw top-class horses, began to dwindle. The Cornhusker more than two decades after the track last ran, the memowas worth $250,000 in 1986, but by 1991, it was worth ries of Ak-Sar-Ben still shine brightly as those who knew half that. The Juvenile Stakes, worth $75,000 at its peak, the track fondly recall the glory days when large crowds gathered to watch horses run at a place where “Nebraska” was worth just over $18,000 in 1993. A variety of factors contributed to Ak-Sar-Ben’s decline, spelled backward had a very special meaning. H but one of the biggest was the expansion of gambling in Nebraska and other nearby states. J. Keeler Johnson (also known as “Keelerman”) is a writer, “I believe the closing of Aks was due to competition,” Kotulak said. “Beginning in the 1980s, Bluff’s Run—a dog blogger, videographer, handicapper and all-around horse ractrack—opened in Council Bluffs [Iowa], followed by Rem- ing enthusiast. Johnson writes for the Bloodhorse.com blog ington Park, Canterbury, Prairie Meadows and The Wood- Unlocking Winners and is a frequent contributor to America’s lands. The lottery also came to the state and keno too. So the Best Racing (americasbestracing.net). He is also the founder of the horse racing website theturfboard.com. monopoly that Aks had [on gambling] slipped away.”
26 AMERICAN RACEHORSE • SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2016
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...