It's Derby Week, so I headed for Ak-Sar-Ben.
I drove to 72nd Street and headed south. Past the strip malls and businesses. To the light at Pacific.
There was the familiar Ak-Sar-Ben marquee sign flashing the news of the week. Derby Day specials. Mint juleps. Hat contests. Racers playoff game Sunday night.
I drove up the hill. There was the Ranch Bowl at the top. The Aquarium. I turned onto Center and headed east. There was the Turf Lounge and the Fan Tan. Stop there after the race. Gotta park.
I turn into the racing complex and who do I see? Gary Java, the sports-talk voice from KKAR.
He told me to wake up. It's not 1993.
What would you do if there were an Omaha hot tub time machine? This week, you would go back to Ak-Sar-Ben for the bright colors, brilliant spring afternoons and the sounds of thunder down that backstretch.
Except you can't do that anymore. Ak-Sar-Ben is now the place to go if you're doing business, or going to business school at UNO. Or to grab a burger or a movie.
I had lunch there last week. And I saw it. Behind DJ's Dugout, there was a terrific mural, in color photos, of the horses coming out of the gate at an Ak-Sar-Ben race.
It piqued my curiosity.
Where was the track? The grandstand? The old Coliseum, home of the Racers and Lancers?
I enlisted a couple of experienced scouts: Greg Hosch, the general manager of Horsemen's Park and a veteran of racing in Nebraska for 40 years, and Java, now the marketing director at Horsemen's.
Our goal: Find the spot where the track was located. In the maze of buildings and new streets and construction, it's not marked.
We left Horsemen's and headed north on 72nd. We turned right on Pine Street, which leads you directly into the old Ak-Sar-Ben complex. I told Hosch I was sure Pine Street was where the old backstretch of the track was. He would disagree. More on that later.
Hosch, a former trainer, groom, jockey agent and secretary of racing at Ak-Sar-Ben, proceeded down the hill slowly. He noticed a bridge to the left.
We turned left on 70th, a side street into a parking lot. As we got to the bridge, over the creek, Hosch recognized it immediately.
“That's the walking bridge we used to walk horses from the barn area to the training track,” Hosch said. “Look at that. It's the same bridge.”
We went back to Pine and headed east, past buildings for First Data and the Kiewit Institute. Hosch's instincts came alive. He had been here before. The entire northern part of this new complex, he said, was the backside.
He saw a row of trees near Pacific Street.
“I know that row of trees,” Hosch said. “There's where they had the chute for the six-furlong race. And there's the fence, along Pacific Street. The grooms used to hop the fence and go to Clancy's at night.”
Hosch then saw a hill, just above one of the streets coming in from Pacific.
“That hill used to be bigger,” Hosch said. “Don Von Hemel (trainer) used to have his stables up there. They cut that hill off.”
Now that he had the location of the backside figured out, Hosch estimated that Pine Street was actually in the middle of the infield of the track. That meant Mammel Hall, UNO's school of business administration just to the north, would have been the backstretch.
So where was the grandstand?
At first, we guestimated that it was where the Blue Cross Blue Shield building sits. But as we drove east past that building, down Frances Street, Hosch said the grandstand was farther east.
We came to a stop at the corner of 67th and Frances. Hosch looked at that row of trees, the hill, and 63rd Street off to the east. He said the grandstand was right here. It started just to the north of this corner and went east.
The Courtyard Hotel? That was where the seven-furlong races started.
And the old Coliseum, home of those hot winter nights? We decided it must have been right at the corner of 67th and Frances, including the new DJ's location.
Hosch confirmed this feeling as we continued our tour of the postgame hangouts. The Trackside Lounge, still in the same place on 60th Street. The cozy Fan Tan Club, once a popular jockey hangout, was looking worn but still on Center Street. The Turf Lounge, now known as Club Turf, had moved down a few blocks, toward 60th.
I told Hosch a story about how I used to come up from Kansas City in the 1980s, on a bus. I remember it turned off of I-80 at 60th Street to get to the track. Hosch said the buses used to go down 63rd Street to Shirley. So that's where we headed.
As we turned left on Shirley, heading back to the “track,” it came to Hosch: The buses came down this road and parked in the east lot. From our view heading down Shirley, Hosch said our estimations were right on.
Or close to it.
What was also interesting about this tour was to see the signs of history in this corporate-urban campus development area. A UNO housing complex is called Pinhook Flats, with a racehorse and jockey on the sign.
The old monument for the great champion horse Omaha is now at Stinson Park, near Center Street and across 67th Street from Wohlner's. Inside the Blue Cross building, there's an “Ak-Sar-Ben Room” with old photos of the track throughout the years.
There are galloping ghosts all over this property. Stand somewhere near 67th and Pine and you can hear the thunder steps from yesteryear.
The track's gone. But the spirit moved south, to Horsemen's. This is where they will show up at 8 a.m. Saturday, and camp out at tables all day. There will be a party tent and prizes and souvenir glasses and an atmosphere that brings back memories.
This is where live racing still lives in Omaha. It's tougher than ever, though. Smoking bans and the economy have taken a toll. There's only one live meet this year — next weekend.
Assuming good weather comes, the people will, too. There's still a good-sized racing crowd in this town, loyal and true. The races aren't what they used to be in Nebraska, or around the country. That's old news.
But it's good to know there's a place for fans to go to watch and wager, whether they pay attention all year or once a year.
Hosch sat in his office the other day and lamented the past. He got his dream job, Ak-Sar-Ben racing secretary, a year before the county pulled the plug on the track. Simulcasting wasn't as big yet in 1996. Hosch wonders if they had given the track four more years, until it could be one of the tracks supporting simulcasting, if it would still be around.
You probably would have needed the casinos. That was not happening in Nebraska. That's a debate that doesn't need re-opening.
But Hosch spoke with pride about a trainer who talked about Prairie Meadows in Des Moines, and said it was a nice track, but didn't have the horseracing feel of Ak-Sar-Ben. That was a horse track, the trainer said.
“The best part about the live racing is seeing all the old faces, the people you used to see at Ak-Sar-Ben,” Hosch said. “They all say they still miss it. Nobody ever says they're glad it went away.”
It's still there, on a mural, up on the hill by the row of trees, across that walking bridge. Down near 67th and Pine. Listen and you can hear the thunder. Or maybe that's a bulldozer.
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