Friday, May 10, 2013

Omaha Is Better Today With Horseman's Park Instead of Ak-Sar-Ben

This weekend, horse racing returns (albeit too briefly) for it's miniature meet at Horseman's Park in South Omaha. For one weekend, fans of the horses get a chance to reminisce about the good old days when tens of thousands of fans jammed packed Ak-Sar-Ben to watch and bet on the races. It's an era that's forever gone.  It was good for Omaha while it lasted, but what has replaced it is even better.

Instead, we have an upscale midtown redevelopment with shopping, restaurants, corporate headquarters, and the south campus of the University of Nebraska Omaha.  It's definitely an asset to the city once again.

With the Kentucky Derby last week and the Horseman's meet this week, many people wax nostalgic about what was lost with Ak-Sar-Ben.  The Ak-Sar-Ben of the 1970's was one thing.  The Ak-Sar-Ben of the late 1980's and 1990's was something completely different.  In it's prime, Ak-Sar-Ben was the only place to legally wager between Chicago and Las Vegas in the summertime.  Suddenly other states built tracks.  The dog races came to Council Bluffs.  Then the casinos.  Only people who truly loved horses still frequented the tracks, and the glory days of Ak-Sar-Ben were over.

Legendary horse trainer Jack Van Berg told the World-Herald today that he's still furious over the end of the track at Ak-Sar-Ben.  I understand why horsemen feel that way.  But they are wrong.  Said Van Berg to Mike Kelly:

“It's terrible. I never run into anybody in Omaha who isn't sick that they tore Ak-Sar-Ben down. It could have been saved if it got slot machines.”
Certainly, slot machines would have kept horse racing alive at Ak-Sar-Ben longer.  They might still be racing now.  They wouldn't be racing for much longer, though. Eventually, the casino would trump the horses, because as the casino becomes more lucrative, the horse racing becomes less and less important to the organization running the enterprise. Eventually, the racing people would sell out to an offer they can't refuse, and that is the end of racing.

Look at the river boats.  They started off as tourist attractions for cruising the river, and added slot machines to be a side attraction.  Soon the boats cruised less and less, until they finally stopped cruising altogether.  Now Harrah's is scrapping their Council Bluffs boat and moving the gambling onshore. 

Look at Bluffs Run. The dog track that took the first big bite out of Ak-Sar-Ben added slot machines to subsidize racing.  And over time, the business model shifted and the casino became the important thing, not the racing.  Bluffs Run became Horseshoe Casino, and the owners are tired of subsidizing the races.  They want to shut down the dog track.

Same thing would have happened in Omaha at Ak-Sar-Ben.  Ak-Sar-Ben would have momentarily revitalized with the casino, but eventually the midtown casino would push the horses out.  And I suspect that there wouldn't be a Horseman's Park there to ensure at least a little presence for horse racing when that happened.

So the future of Omaha would have had no horse racing, no expanded UNO campus, and those corporate headquarters might have ended up elsewhere.  But we would have had a shiny casino exporting profits off to Las Vegas.

In the grand scheme of things, Omaha probably got the best it could out of Ak-Sar-Ben.  Could it have been better?  Maybe.  But I suspect, considering the impacts I've seen personally from horse racing, casinos, and the jobs that opened up because Ak-Sar-Ben was redeveloped, Omaha would be much worse off with a casino at Ak-Sar-Ben.


Frank Matyja said...

AK forever

Frank Matyja said...

Lived it! Loved it!! Miss the burgers from the oak barrel,still smell them.