Alexa Wray and Phuthasone Phommyvong

The rise and fall of the Aksarben racetrack could be viewed as a series of multiple disasters. Aksarben racetrack was once a growing and popular spot for horse racing that has now disappeared. So what happened to the racetrack?  This study examines the history, the economic background of gambling, and animal rights.

Methodology

This research began at the University of Nebraska-Omaha at the Criss Library. With the use of the library resources such as online searching, a variety of articles spanning 1933 to 2014 were found. The articles pertaining to the Aksarben horse track racing in Omaha were examined and utilized to understand the history of the track and the reason why it was closed. Additional information was gathered from the Archives and Collections subcategory: Forgotten Omaha. This archive provided a collection of newspaper articles and books about Aksarben’s past. With the information gathered from these sources, a conclusion must be made to dictate and explain the closing of the Aksarben horse racetrack. With the information gathered a data table was created.  After preliminary examination the following themes were chosen and the data set was systematically examined.  The table was separated by list of categories. These categories were crucial to the community and were analyzed by the following themes: economic benefits, history, ethics, and regulations of the sport.

 

Findings

History of Aksarben

The Aksarben horse race track was a major part of Omaha history. The humble beginnings of the horse racing track date back to 1919. Back then, it was just a small local track that hosted harness racing. From there it started to grow and by 1920 the horse racetrack was built. It included a colosseum, grandstands, stables, and an infield for cars to park (Ananias). The Ak-sar-ben race track, sometimes referred to as “Ak”, held races every year until 1995 (with the exception of 1930 and 1934, and then 1943 and 1944 while World War II was happening (Dorr, 1995). In 1943 the track pins were made out of paper because metal was being used for the war effort (Patterson, 2009).

Picture heretornado

Tornado on May 6th, 1975. The tornado luckily ran just West of the track and caused minimal damage.

 

The highs and the lows

The Aksarben was at its peak in the 1980’s. Gambling in the state and surrounding area almost exclusively belonged to Aksarben (Patterson, 1992). The peak of the racing track in Aksarben was 1985. This year had the highest attendances and betting in the history of the horse track.

After 1985 attendance and betting were steady. Eventually, the track started to go down-hill (Ananias). The reason why it spiraled down-hill is because the casinos opened right across the river in Council Bluffs. Iowa’s gambling laws were much less strict than Nebraska gambling laws. Council Bluffs had big casinos with high stakes gambling and a new dog track. This took a lot of attendees away from Aksarben horse track racing Nebraska’s biggest and almost exclusive gambling event. In the end, the track was no longer feasible and had to be sold. Although Aksarben played a big part in the horse racing industry, the popularity of horse racing (this includes Quarter Horse racing, cart horse racing, and thoroughbred horse racing) in the entire state of Nebraska was on the decline (Neilsen & Sindt, 1996).

Selling Askarben

As time went on, things started to decline for the race track. In 1992, track owners starting worrying about the lessening attendance at Aksarben. On-track attendance down 6.5% and money bet down 3.2%. The track was $200k in the black, but that didn’t account for track depreciation (Patterson, 1992). Average daily attendance for 1992 was at about 3,500 people, the lowest attendance in 59 years (Dorr, 1995). There were many last-ditch efforts to save Aksarben. At the time, the Knights of Aksarben owned the track (Reilly,1995).  Douglas county stepped in and bought the track. Ak-Sar-Ben horse racetrack was sold in 1995 due a major decline of attendance, revenue, and the new gambling law requirements in Nebraska. The new ownership came up with many different attempts to bring business back to the horse track racing. The ideas suggested includes night races as well as bringing more venues and events back to Omaha to attract additional traffic to Aksarben. An addition to the track was considered but thrown out because of financial issues (Patterson, 1992). The other idea was to run fewer races with the thought that it would bring more people in for the races. This idea was shot down because of the Simulcasting Law passed in 1988. Simulcast racing was broadcast at horse tracks around the country. This meant people from different states could attend and bet on races in other states. The Simulcast Law states that in order to simulcast races, a track must run 90% of its races in a season. For Aksarben, this meant they had to race at least 77 of the 85 scheduled days in the season or risk losing even more attendance because they couldn’t simulcast (Patterson 1992).  In August of 1995, just ten years after its peak, the Aksarben race track closed its doors to the horse racing industry.

Economic Competition

Since the restart of racing in 1945 after the war ended, the profits and attendance went up every year. The peak year of Aksarben was 1985, with a record on track attendance of 1,305,753 people in an 86-day race season. Daily attendance averaged at 15,183 people (Ananias). The next year, casinos and a dog track opened just across the river in Council Bluffs. This took a toll on Aksarben. Casinos offered high stakes gambling and dog racing, which Nebraska laws prohibited. Keno and horse racing just couldn’t compete.

Post-simulcast

Although the difference in attendance at Aksarben between 1985 and 1988 had decreased by almost 600,000 people (Ananias), simulcast racing had boosted it back up by over 150,000. People in other states were watching races at Aksarben and betting on them. While attendance and betting could not compare to the peak season of 1985, there was hope that there was a chance to revitalize the track.

An attempt at slot machines

     One idea that was proposed was to bring slot machines to Aksarben. The gambling laws at the time prohibited high stakes gambling in the state. Anything more than keno or horse racing was illegal. Track owners were hoping that bringing slot machines to the track would bring people back and offer some competition to the Iowa tracks. A bill was proposed to the Nebraska Legislature to allow slot machines, but it was rejected (Dorr, 1995).

Horses in Omaha

It is hard to say what the fate of the horses that ran in Omaha was. The New York Times article paints a grim picture, but there is very little, if any, information on how horses that raced Aksarben were treated. Overall, it seems, researching how the horses were treated was not an important enough topic in the history of Aksarben to be scrutinized. Research on how horses were treated in Omaha was inconclusive; next to no information was found regarding the care of the horses.

 

Analysis

Through the research and articles analyzed in this study, it was clear that economics and statistics for the track were more important than anything else. The focus was always how to bring more people in and keep profits up. Even when it came to the track having to be sold, finding a buyer was a major discussion for Omaha. From a more sociological point, research showed that the track had sentimental value to horse racing fans in the Midwest. It was a fun environment for families to watch horses and jockeys race. The University of Nebraska-Omaha and some life-long fans have preserved the history through saved collectables and archives.

When it came down to the treatment of the horses and the regulations around protecting them at Aksarben, the research was extremely limited. From this, we can’t assume that the horses were treated in one way or another at Aksarben. There is no denying the atrocities that exist in horse racing. In 2014, the New York Times published a research article that took a highly revealing peak into the world of horse racing and the realities around the abuse that are so under looked. From March 25th through September 22nd of 2012, there were seventeen headlines in the NY Times about drug abuse in horses, fatal accidents, the dark fate of horses that are no longer profitable, and the very loose regulations and consequences around it all (Denham, 2014). Most of the drugs used on horses are for disguising pain. Some are stimulants to make the horses perform better. The article mentions a diuretic called Lasix that prevents nose-bleeds in thoroughbred horses when they run too hard (Denham, 2014). The horses are pumped full of pain-killers before a race so they can run through any injury or problem that is bothering them. This leads into the fatal injuries the horses can sustain because they can’t feel the pain. If a horse sustains an injury to the leg that prevents it from running it has a slim chance of ever healing, and therefore becomes useless to its owners. In New Mexico, a two-year-old horse named Teller All Gone broke his leg during a race. They partially hid the horse behind a makeshift barrier after he fell and euthanized him there on the track. After that, they dumped his body in a junkyard (Denham, 2014).

Larger scale races like the Kentucky Derby that are higher stakes and nationally broadcast are under more scrutiny than small local tracks. This still does not protect the horses from painful lives and brutal ends. It is important to address this issue and bring it to light in order to do something about it. The regulations around the treatment of horses and the penalties for breaking them need to be tightened up and more highly enforced.

The struggle in getting better regulations for protecting the horses is the drive for money; the economics of horse racing. There are and always will be people who will cheat to win and will throw away what is no longer winning them money. In the minds of some horse owners, the damage done to the horses is worth the prize in the end. The money is what drives horse racing. In high stakes racing, the purses are in the millions and the horses are worth hundreds of thousands. Smaller races still have purses in the hundred-thousands and the horses are still worth a pretty penny. In Omaha at Aksarben race track, the demise of the track was the lack of funds. Casinos in Iowa took away from Aksarben and funds eventually ran out. They didn’t have the attendance or the profit high enough to keep the track open after 1995.

 

Conclusion

It was a sad ending for the track, but as the statistics show, it was inevitable. Casinos in Council Bluffs really took away from horse racing in Omaha and there wasn’t a good way to rebound no matter what they tried. In conclusion, Aksarben has had a memorable but regretful history. The joy of having a horse racetrack to bring the communities together, having provided employment as well as joy to families. The horse racetrack gave horses meaning; the care, attention and a job they so desire was an experience. But by having competitors across the river, it took away business from the horse racetrack. Even though horses enjoy having a purpose in life; were they treated with the respect they so deserved? Well, the answer is regretfully remorseful.

It is also important to evaluate the treatment of the horses. When it comes to the horses, the reality of the sport is ugly. The general public’s eyes are not open to this. The lack of published or scholarly articles about abuse in horse racing is in and of itself evident that these issues are swept under the rug. People need to understand the stressful, painful, and sometimes short lives some of these horses live. They need to understand that the majority of these horses are sent to slaughter if they are no longer able to race. They are disposable and they are suffering at the hands of people who see them as profit instead of living beings. The rules and regulations around the horses severely need to be tightened up and enforced. There needs to be a push for justice from the attendees to the races. Horse racing is not the problem, it is how some of the horses are treated that creates an issue and that issue can be fixed. Although, the original goal of the research was to look at the history and economics of the Aksarben racetrack to understand why it had to close, the treatment of the horses raised questions. It became an important point to evaluate and expose the truth behind the treatment of horses at Aksarben. There was plenty of information on animal rights and how they should be treated. Though even with the information provided, very little is specific to horses and how they are treated at the racetrack. There is room to make horse racing better, but there doesn’t seem to be any motivation to make it that way it right now. Hoping that one day, the poor treatment of horses can be brought to the light and show the world how much horses do impact the community’s entertainment.

 

 

Bibliography:

 

 

Ananias. (n.d.). Retrieved May/June, 2019, from http://www.ak-sar-ben.com/Year-to-year.html

Ananias. (n.d.). Retrieved May/June, 2019, from http://www.ak-sar-ben.com/tornado.html

CAN, M. F. (2015). An Evaluation of Horse Racing Revenues and Factors Affecting It. Journal of Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Erciyes University / Erciyes Üniversitesi Veteriner Fakültesi Dergisi, 12(2), 123–131. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=118117234&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Cherry, E. (2010). Shifting Symbolic Boundaries: Cultural Strategies of the Animal Rights Movement. Sociological Forum, 25(3), 450–475. https://doi-org.leo.lib.unomaha.edu/10.1111/j.1573-7861.2010.01191.x

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CONNOLLY, C. (1995, January 17). Commissioner Seeks Bill To Allow Sale of Ak Track. Omaha World-Herald (NE), p. 1. Available from NewsBank: https://infoweb-newsbank-com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/12DEB0BDB6B93B48.

CONNOLLY, C. (1995, January 18). Commissioners Open To Ak – Sar – Ben Sale. Omaha World-Herald (NE), p. 1. Available from NewsBank: https://infoweb-newsbank-com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/12DEB0D034A80E88.

CONNOLLY, C. (1995, January 27). Simon: It’s Time to Discuss Ak Sale to Tribe. Omaha World-Herald (NE), p. 1. Available from NewsBank: https://infoweb-newsbank-com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/12DEB19693E988C0.

de Zutter ;Mike Patterson, M. (1992, August 9). County Has Good First Run at Ak. Omaha World-Herald (NE), p. 1A. Available from NewsBank: https://infoweb-newsbank-com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu/apps/news/document-view?p=AWNB&docref=news/12DF1269A678C910.

Denham, B. E. (2014). Intermedia Attribute Agenda Setting in the New York Times: The Case of Animal Abuse in U.S. Horse Racing. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 91(1), 17–37. https://doi-org.leo.lib.unomaha.edu/10.1177/1077699013514415

DORR, R. (1995, August 8). Ak Survival in Doubt As ’95 Racing Ends Attendance Is 59 – Year Low At Horse Track. Omaha World-Herald (NE), p. 1. Available from NewsBank: https://infoweb-newsbank-com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu/apps/news/document-view?p=AWNB&docref=news/12DF1260ED4A92F0

DORR, R. (1995, December 21). Will Ak – Sar – Ben Race in 1996? County Must Decide Shortly Racing Options. Omaha World-Herald (NE), p. 1. Available from NewsBank: https://infoweb-newsbank-com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/12DF57BE64DBA370.

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Patterson, M. (2009, February 12). Ak-Sar-Ben artifacts auction Seeking last big payout. Omaha World-Herald (NE), p. 01B. Available from NewsBank: https://infoweb-newsbank-com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu/apps/news/document-view?p=AWNB&docref=news/12DC0F9C14783C00

REILLY, M. (1995, October 31). Knights Offer Plan To Settle Ak Future Racing, Keno Would Stay Without Casino Ak – Sar – Ben Plan. Omaha World-Herald (NE), p. 1. Available from NewsBank: https://infoweb-newsbank-com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/12DF1B90D6AB6FB0