09/25/2001 12:00AM

Atokad reopening a success

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SOUTH SIOUX CITY, Neb. - Live racing returned to northeastern Nebraska for the first time since 1997 Saturday when Horsemen's Atokad Downs presented a one-day meet of eight races that distributed more than $125,000 in purses.

The $15,000 purse for the first race was the richest race ever run at the track, and it was eclipsed by the $20,000 purse of the feature. Formerly known as Atokad Park, the track used to have a daily purse distribution of about $16,000 per day.

A good-sized crowd was on hand by the first race and it continued to swell through the afternoon, with attendance estimated at 4,500 to 5,000.

Steve Buttelman, the bugler at Churchill Downs, performed the national anthem, and brought the horses onto the track for the post parade of each race. Buttelman received an ovation after his rendition of "God Bless America" beforethe day's final race. Charles Pinnell, who calls races at Thistledown in Ohio, announced the day's races.

Armando Martinez won three races on the day to lead the jockeys. Perry Compton and Vicki Warhol shipped in to join the regular Nebraska riders for the day. Compton picked up two wins, including the featured $20,000 Robert E. Lee Classic, a starter allowance at a mile and 70 yards. Eight different trainers sent out winners.

Atokad was ordered closed by the Nebraska Racing Commission in late June 1998 for financial reasons, and the 21-day meet scheduled for that year was canceled. The track was eventually sold to Taylor and Martin, an auction firm specializingof sales semi-truck.

Under the direction of Robert E. Lee, president of the Nebraska Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the HBPA was able to purchase the track and grandstand last year, and it has spent more than $1.3 million on bringing racing back to South Sioux City. The facility reopened for simulcasting in February for the first time since the summer of 1998.

Lee said he doesn't expect the track to be a big moneymaker, but he thinks the fans and horsemen in this part of the state need to be involved in the racing industry again. There are no plans to expand the meet, according to Lee. The track is limited to an 80-stall barn for racehorses and used the Dakota County Fair barns for pony horses.

The simulcasting area of the grandstand has received a facelift. The second floor of the mezzanine was not available for use this year, but plans are to open it in 2002.