December 30, 2015 by
Photography by Contributed by Douglas County Historical Society

It’s hard to believe the Ak-Sar-Ben Race Track and Coliseum has been closed for 20 years (the coliseum closed later, in 2002), as it was long one of Omaha’s iconic locations. Here is a brief look back on its long history.

The track was built in 1919 to underwrite the various activities of Omaha’s famous Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben, a civic and philanthropic group dating back to 1895 inspired by the various “krewes” of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parades. Initially created to provide an alternative to the rougher entertainment then popular at the state fair held in Omaha, the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben quickly expanded to supporting civic improvement projects, funding local charities, and overseeing various social events.
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The first race at the Ak-Sar-Ben track was an informal harness race on July 6, 1919. The track itself was not officially dedicated for nearly another year. That ceremony was held on September 14, 1920, with Nebraska governor Samuel Roy McKelvie officiating. At that time, admission cost 85 cents, and the track featured four harness and two running races every day.

In 1921, the racetrack expanded, adding a new grandstand at the cost of $400,000; that same year Nebraska created a racing commission and made pari-mutuel betting legal—the style of gambling favored by horse races, in which odds are not fixed until the pool is closed, allowing for a great variety of bets. You can bet that a horse will win, place, or show, or place even more complex bets, such as sweep six, in which the bettor must correctly pick the winner of six races. The more challenging the bet, the more the bettor stands to win.

The track built an adjoining coliseum in 1929, which quickly became Omaha’s premiere events center, serving as both an ice rink and a concert stage. Over its long life, the coliseum hosted many of the country’s most popular musical acts, acting as virtually a who’s who of changing tastes in music: The venue offered performances by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Nirvana.

The track shut down from 1943 to 1945 during World War II. When the track opened again, on May 13, 1945, a crowd of 6,500 attended.

When a tornado struck Omaha in 1975, the race track was so close to its path that the twister was visible to people attending the races. The tornado carved a 10-mile path, killing three people, injuring 133, and scattering the debris of destroyed homes and businesses for miles. The total damage from the tornado, adjusted for inflation, was $1.1 billion, but the race track was mostly spared significant damage.

The track is often associated with a horse named Omaha, who won the Triple Crown in 1935. The horse had no relationship with Ak-Sar-Ben until retiring to Nebraska City, when he was sometimes paraded around the track. When he died in 1959, Omaha was buried at Ak-Sar-Ben, but in the intervening years, the exact site of the grave was lost to time and remains a mystery to this day.

Visit douglascohistory.org to learn more.

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