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This article started out as a piece that was going to invite horseplayers primarily in the Midwest to plan to spend a summer weekend next year here in Omaha when Horsemen's Park runs its three-day meet. It's a three-day party, the center of which truly is horseracing and communing with other people who share your passion.
In the heydey of live racing in Omaha at Ak-Sar-Ben, in the late seventies and into the mid-eighties, it was not uncommon to see as many as 120 buses in the parking lot at the track; I know, because I've counted them to make sure my eyes were really seeing a sea of buses that had brought players from Kansas City and other points in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and even Minnesota, to one of the top ten tracks in the country in terms of attendance and handle!
Due mainly to simply incredible mismanagement by Douglas County, which had no business running a racetrack to begin with, Aks closed in 1995. Three years later, the Horsemen's Benevolent Protective Association of Nebraska, resumed live racing at Horsemen's Park (HPO), a bull ring built on a landfill smack dab in the center of the city, maybe two miles as the crow files from Ak-Sar-Ben. The track followed the opening of one of the most player-oriented off-track betting facilities in the country, which makes many race books in Las vegas look positively pathetic by comparison. Large credit goes to Dick Moore, the former Comptroller of Ak-Sar-Ben (one of the few people on the payroll who really had a clue), and most importantly, a racing fan and handicapper himself.
HPO was never intended to be a fulltime facility. It is there to insure that at least one live horse race is run by a licensed body each year--fulfilling the state requirement written specifically to allow full-card satellite wagering in the state.This year's fourth meet at the track featured three days of live racing with purses totalling over $380,000 for the twelve races.
The Daily Racing Form said this about HPO during it's live meet this year: "While not your typical race meet, Horsemen's Park in Omaha has played an important part in helping to support the state's other race tracks by being able to offer full-card simulcasting in Nebraska's largest population center."
When I mentioned my angle for this article to a friend, the reply was "Is it nostalgic or is it the future?"
A keen observation! The topic has been discussed formally and informally by players and pro handicappers alike. It's a given that if casinos and slot machines had not come to some race tracks, they wouldn't be conducting live racing today. And we're seeing trainers moving their barns, in full or in part, to some of those same casino-track operations from other tracks that can't provide purses as large, lacking added revenue from the slots-a move that takes away from other obviously less sucessful tracks.
A few years ago, at an informal discussion at the DRF Handicapping Expo in Las Vegas, two questions came up:
(1) In five or ten years, if tracks don't fare well for whatever reason, will we see a "national circuit" of sorts, fueled and maintained primarily by simulcasting, to shore up a sagging industry? New York, Kentucky, Illinois, Maryland, Florida, maybe a couple of other for equitable regional representation, and of course, Southern California.Would we see an increase in satellite wagering patronage, higher purses, fuller fields, and greater interest by players?
(2) If this comes to pass, is it ultimately a good thing for racing?
Remember, this was basically a cocktail party conversation, so no one had anything other than gut-level opinions. The one universal comment was that while it might be viable, it would be a sad state of affairs for a great sport.
HPO is a great example of what can be done to keep small tracks alive when a big track closes, a possibility that can become a reality almost overnight. Interestingly, tiny Atokad Park, on the Nebraska side of the Cornhusker state's border with South Dakota, after having ceased live racing soon after Ak-Sar-Ben closed, will offer a live one-day meet this year. The idea might sound amusing to someone who lives within driving distance of Del Mar or Saratoga, but it marks the beginning of a possible return to becoming part of the circuit again for cheaper horses who need someplace to run more than one month a year. Re-opening a closed track of any size IS news in today's world of horse racing.
It's almost hard to believe that the racing overlords in the state where racing has always been regarded as the best-monied in the land, California, are beginning the discussion on cutting back races to increase field sizes, a problem that arguably can be classified as one of survival..
With this in mind, maybe the big tracks can learn from the little ones (like HPO) so that the best solution will not be a major blow for all the people in the stands and the backside, the people who really make racing go.
I'd like to think that the answer to the question posed by the title of this article is "nostalgia," rather than "the future," because I'd like to see as many tracks as possible survive, if survive is truly the operative word.
For now, at least, there's not a solid answer to the question. Let's hope the day doesn't come when it demands one.