The Death March and Occasional Flashes of Good News

July 17, 2012

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Over the past weekend I was in Omaha, Nebraska, calling races at Horsemen’s Park.  The good news is that this old boy has still got it when it comes to calling races.  The calls went pretty well and the races, even though primarily stocked with low-quality state-breds, were still competitive and fun.  The famed Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffet, even made his annual appearance on Saturday afternoon, causing a significant stir among those on hand.  There was also a short appearance by the most famous Nebraska-bred trainer of them all, Jack Van Berg.  Jack was on a short layover in Omaha and made his was out to pay respects to a close friend, Miss Laurie Bale, who had a surprise birthday party at the track.  Also in attendance was former Ak-Sar-Ben announcer, television analyst and now on the staff of Remington Park, Chris Kotulak.  All of them being on hand made it a terrific day for everyone.

However this trip had more unpleasant moments than good ones.  I should have been prepared when I heard someone talking about death on the trip north and the comment was “life is what we do while we’re waiting to die." The opening weekend at Horsemen’s Park, one of my all-time favorite places to go, brought that to light.

In Nebraska, two bad things have happened over the past year.  First, the governor vetoed allowing Instant Racing machines to be installed at the track.  It wasn’t just the veto which was the problem. The legislature took a vote to override the veto and it came up the dreaded “one vote short.”  Now, there is no good plan to add the very entity which started to turn things around at Oaklawn in the face of competition from Tunica, Mississippi.

This has to be hard on Nebraska horsemen for a couple of reason.  For one, they can stand on the site of the famed Rosenblatt Stadium (for years home of the baseball College World Series and due for dismantling this week) and see a handful of casinos doing great business right across the state line in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  Those casinos have been focused on keeping casinos out of Nebraska for decades, since the parking lots in Council Bluffs are jammed with cars bearing Nebraska license plates.  Nebraska could put Council Bluff casinos out of business.  But the wisdom of Nebraska’s legislature has been to hand over all that revenue to Iowa.  Secondly, there is a minimum number of racing dates assigned by law and, if those dates aren’t run, tracks are simulcasting illegally.

Confounding the situation in Nebraska is the second of the two bad things which happened in Nebraska this year, the fact that the racetrack at the Lincoln Fairgrounds has been closed and is becoming property of the University.  Talks to arrange the development of a new track in the Lincoln, Nebraska, area have stalled.  Even if they come to some agreement, it will take a while to get something into place.  Time is not on the side of the Nebraska horsemen.

We saw death come to Ak-Sar-Ben, which was one of the finest racetracks in the Midwest, in Omaha in the mid-90s.  Horsemen’s Park was developed through the efforts of the Nebraska HBPA and is one of the enjoyable experiences anywhere for simulcast players.

This year, in order to see whether Horsemen’s would be able to help the Nebraska horsemen get to their minimum number of racing days in future years, the track added a couple of days and at least one race per day.  Off the results of the first of the two three-day weekends of racing at Horsemen’s, it looks unlikely that the track will succeed.  Not only was the urgency of previous presentations at Horsemen’s (when the track would race just one weekend per year) did not seem to be there.  The food was good and the musical attractions in the popular beer garden were first-rate.  But the big crowds of previous years were not there.

“Maybe the urgency of getting to the track had something to do with tha,t” admitted General Manager Greg Hosch.  It didn’t help that Omaha is in the middle of the same drought which we’re experiencing in Hot Springs.  It was so darned hot, I was amazed that there were 18 races of the weekend and not one horse impacted on track by some form of heat stroke.  Credit that to the horsemen, who prepared their horses so well.

But the big problem looming for Horsemen’s in the immediate future is finding horses to race.  With Lincoln, the normal feeder track for Horsemen’s racing programs, now out of business, the job of recruiting will be the most undesirable on the track.  Already the fields are short, by comparison to previous years at Horsemen’s, so the idea of finding runners for the remainder of the season seems difficult.  The track is owned by the Nebraska HBPA, which has been reluctant to open up too many races for horses from other states, since life is difficult enough already for the locals.  But that option is about the only one left and it is not guaranteed to work.

I’ve been through the death of racetracks before and am blessed to be working most of the time at Oaklawn, which is very much alive.  But I know enough to realize that Oaklawn would have come to its knees under the same circumstances which confront Horsemen’s Park.  Instant Racing and the eventual growth of the gaming center at Oaklawn to include Electronic Games of Skill have done wonders to save the quality of the live racing program at Oaklawn.  The three-year-old program at Oaklawn can’t be topped for horses readying for the Triple Crown, especially under the new point-system of qualifying for a start in the Kentucky Derby.

In the meantime we see fun places like Horsemen’s Park and maybe the entire racing circuit in Nebraska walking into what seems like a Valley of Death.  I hope I’m wrong, but it feels a lot like it has before.  I’m praying for a miracle for the folks whose lives and jobs depend on this industry in a state which has borne such a rich racing history.

I was also disturbed to see that Caleb’s Posse’s career was over.  Donnie K. Von Hemel did a great job of handling that runner who proved to be among the finest in the land.  He was narrowly edged in the Eclipse voting for three-year-old champion in 2011 and will now head for the breeding shed.  Donnie K. still has the top handicap horse Alternation, who should be a major factor at the top level in the second part of the year.  Still, it hurts us to lose the best of the breed and we will miss the excitement of Caleb’s Posse on the racetrack.

Like everyone else, I’m looking for the good news department.  There are some great things happening this week with the opening of both Saratoga and Del Mar.  Maybe that will pick things up.  If life is what I do while waiting for death, it needs to be more fun.

By the way, the Horsemen’s Park people do a great job of getting outstanding musicians into their beer garden area.  Last Sunday, the crowds were entertained by the Kings of Rock n Roll in Omaha for decades, the Rumbles, and this Saturday the locals are excited about a performance by a band called The Fishheads.  Sunday will be another red letter day for musical entertainment.  High Heel, a band built around great singer, Lisa Larsen, will perform.  Now there is some good news.  If you’re in the neighborhood, I hope you’ll be out to support the local horsemen and hear the great music.  That will be a fun combination.               

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