This weekend's 4 day racing meet at Horsemen's Park will likely draw 50,000 fans to the simulcast facility this weekend, sparking memories of the old Ak-Sar-Ben. And when I speak of the "old Ak-Sar-Ben", I mean the racing jewel of the 70's and 80's, not the dilapided facility that closed 10 years ago and was finally demolished last year. In Ak-Sar-Ben's glory years, buses came from Minneapolis, Des Moines, Kansas City, and beyond as Omaha held the only horse races for 500 miles in every direction. Gamblers flocked here, making it an event, and the locals joined in the fun. Eventually, tracks opened in those other cities and the busses stopped coming. No longer an event, many of the locals also stopped coming as Ak-Sar-Ben racing became a ghost of it's former self. The track finally closed, and the Nebraska Horsemen opened a simulcast facility to maintain a presence in Omaha. As part of the requirements to simulcast, they had to build a small track and hold one horse race a year. But a funny thing happened... the "mini-meet", originally held merely for legal reasons, became an event. Now, the legally required meet has expanded and is now a full-fledged festival in the city drawing local crowds that resemble the glory days of Ak-Sar-Ben. Yes, the only busses that will arrive at Horsemen's Park this weekend are shuttle busses from distant parking lots, so the crowds still are smaller than Ak-Sar-Ben at it's peak. But the feel and interest bear homage to the spirit of Ak-Sar-Ben.
In two more weeks, the Cox Classic comes to town and thousands of people will flock to the Champions Club. And while many people will come for the golf, many more people will flock to the 19th Hole for one of Omaha's biggest parties. With bands every night, it's become a legend that is almost bigger than the golf itself, rivaling some of the events on the larger PGA tour.
Note I didn't even mention the College World-Series, which is Omaha's biggest sports event. The reputation of Omaha being an event town will reach a pinnacle in 2 years when the Olympic swimming trials will invade the Qwest Center for a month. My guess is the Qwest Center will be filled with folks who probably have only watched a few minutes of swimming on TV in their lifetimes.
There is a lesson here for UNO to learn. When UNO started a hockey program, the games were an event. The first game against Manitoba. The "Tuesday Night" play-in game. Chasing Ryan Miller from goal. In the process, UNO's athletic department became complacent. Like horse racing, increase competition from other sporting events have made UNO hockey less of an event. They counted on the sport to market itself, and when UNO stumbled on the ice 3 years ago, the event was gone.
UNO hockey found their mojo on the ice, getting home ice in the playoffs the last 2 years and earning their first NCAA tournament bid last season. With a roster full of young talent returning, the future on-ice for UNO looks promising. But, for as hard as Coach Mike Kemp and his staff have worked in re-establishing the program on ice, it's time for the athletic department to buckle down and re-establish UNO hockey as an event in town.