09/19/2001 11:00PM

Atokad comes alive for one day, 8 races

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SOUTH SIOUX CITY, Neb. - Live racing returns to Atokad Park Saturday for the first time since October 1997 with a one-day meet featuring eight races and purses of more than $125,000. The track opened in mid-February of this year to offer full-card simulcasting.

Saturday's races offer purses of $15,000 each, with the finale, a $10,000 starter allowance, offering $20,000. The feature is the Nebraska Thoroughbred Breeders Special, a $15,000 allowance for Nebraska-bred fillies and mares going one mile. The card also features a four-furlong maiden race for 2-year-olds, claiming races with preference to horses who have raced in the state throughout the year, and a $5,000 starter allowance.

The track, which was closed by the Nebraska Racing Commission because of poor finances, is now owned by the Nebraska Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and operated as South Sioux City Expo and Racing Inc. The facility is now called Horsemen's Atokad Downs and it will function like Horsemen's Park in Omaha, which conducts year-round full-card simulcasting and operates a short live meet to satisfy legal obligations.

Much has changed since Oct. 26, 1997, when Little Margie and jockey Dennis Baxter crossed the wire to win the last race at Atokad Park. That October weekend was typical. The official charts from that day listed the temperature at 35 degrees and an ice storm had paralyzed Lincoln and Omaha. Many of the horses and horsemen who shipped in each day were unable to reach the track, leaving just seven riders in the jockey's room.

Operated at that time as the nonprofit Atokad Agriculture and Racing Association, the track was scheduled to race in August and September 1998. The H.B.P.A. was granted a request to shorten that meet to six days, but in June 1998 the track was shut down by the racing commission after a majority of the track's board of directors resigned. The track was eventually sold to Taylor and Martin.

Last year Nebraska H.B.P.A. president Robert E. Lee reached an agreement with Taylor and Martin to purchase about a third of the 97-acre tract for $760,000. The purchased property includes the grandstand, racing surface, and one 80-stall barn located behind the paddock. The southern portion of the property, about 25 acres including the old stable area, was purchased by Dakota County Fair Board with Taylor and Martin keeping the remainder of the property.

Currently open Wednesday through Sunday for simulcasting, Atokad patrons have wagered about $60,000 weekly. Although short of the $80,000 Lee had originally projected, the track helps to generate purse money and breeders funds for the five tracks in the state. "Hopefully, a day of live racing will spur us a little and we'll have a little more mutuel handle," Lee said.

General manager and racing secretary Tom Harris has been busy with final preparations. Among the improvements are a new stewards' stand and a new roof on the grandstand.

Plans for the track began in 1954 when Everett Fowler undertook the ambitious project of moving the grandstand from Phoenix. The building was hauled in sections over the course of 1954 and 1955 and hosted its first race in 1956.