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COMMENTARY : The Rapid Rise and Fall of Aksarben


A visitor to Aksarben racetrack cannot talk to any local fan without hearing vivid descriptions of what the place was like a decade ago: the big crowds, the high quality of racing, the enthusiasm, the noise. On a Saturday, the roar of the crowd reverberated like thunder over the Nebraska plains.

Aksarben was the most remarkable success story in the sport. In 1985, its average daily attendance was more than 15,000 -- a figure exceeded by only six other American tracks. It handled an average of $1.7 million a day -- more than tracks such as Laurel, Pimlico, Arlington Park and Churchill Downs.

But today there are no roaring crowds at Aksarben. Attendance and wagering have dropped to one-third of what they were in the track's heyday, and purses have fallen accordingly. Even in an industry plagued by widespread economic woe, no track's fortunes have fallen quite so dramatically as Aksarben's.

Founded in 1921, Aksarben (Nebraska spelled backward) prospered because of strong community support. A quirky Nebraska law requires that racetracks in the state be operated by nonprofit organizations dedicated to "civic purposes." The Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben -- which supervised the track and contributed its profits to charities and various good works -- became one of Omaha's most prestigious organizations. The whole city loved its racetrack. Sharon Smith, who is now Aksarben's chief executive officer, recalled: "In my college days here, you never had to make a call to find out where your friends were in the afternoon. They were at the track."

Aksarben drew customers from many parts of the Midwest. Every Saturday, more than 100 buses carried racegoers from Kansas City to Omaha. With a record of phenomenal growth -- total wagering increased every year but one from 1949 through 1985 -- the track confidently embarked on a $7.5 million plan of physical improvements that were completed in 1986. But that year Aksarben's fortunes took a stunning turn for the worse.

In 1986 Iowa legalized greyhound racing, and a new dog track, Bluffs Run, opened just across the Nebraska border -- 10 miles from Aksarben. At the time, the Aksarben management didn't see the dogs as a great threat. "I think," said Dick Moore, the current vice president, "they thought they were invincible."

But greyhounds have hurt thoroughbreds in virtually every market where they competed, and Omaha was no exception. Bluffs Run averaged $400,000 in wagering per performance; Aksarben's business dropped by nearly $450,000 a day. And that was just the beginning of the competition that Aksarben would face, because the gambling boom had begun in America and had arrived in the heartland.

Thoroughbred tracks opened in Iowa and Missouri; there would be no more processions of buses from Kansas City to Omaha. Nebraska legalized keno, and the lottery-like game became wildly popular. The most successful keno parlor in the country, one that took in $25 million in wagers last year, is located two miles from Aksarben. Even Moore had to concede, "They really know how to treat their customers."

Two Indian casinos, an hour from Omaha, added to the competition. The proliferation of gambling dealt a severe blow to Aksarben's old nemesis, the Bluffs Run dog track, which tried to bolster its business by offering thoroughbred simulcasts from out-of-state tracks. There is more gambling to come: Iowa is expected to have slot machines later this year and riverboat casinos in 1995.

Aksarben's sudden decline generated much consternation and blame-casting. Many racing fans thought the track's management had been too complacent in the face of mounting competition. The Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben realized they were out of their element trying to oversee a racetrack in such a tough environment and decided to sell; Aksarben became a political football until the county government bought it.

The scenario was a familiar one. As the thoroughbred business has declined in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and many other states, critics have blamed inept, short-sighted management. To some extent the criticisms are valid, but the main cause of horse racing's problems is that it has lost its longtime monopoly in the gambling marketplace. No American racetrack will ever occupy the unchallenged position that Aksarben enjoyed for so many years.

Like most tracks, Aksarben hopes that simulcasting will offer the remedy for some of its ills. It beams its races to other Nebraska tracks as well as Las Vegas, but its product isn't good enough to compete with the heavyweights in the simulcasting market. It has begun to offer full-card simulcasts from Louisiana Downs and Hollywood Park, and the innovation has increased wagering totals, but this growth will come with a price. Regular customers are diverting their dollars from the Aksarben races to the out-of-state events, reducing the betting pools on the live races, threatening to make those live races a marginal (and perhaps expendable) part of the track's product.

The one strength that Aksarben retains is the community's affection for the track. "Everybody has a different idea what we should do here," said Smith, "but these people really have a passion and a dedication to Aksarben and to racing in general." Sadly, there might be no ideas strong enough to restore prosperity to tracks like Aksarben, situated in small markets and engulfed by competition for the gambling dollar.

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