07/17/2001 11:00PM

Three days, 12 races, one big Omaha party


OMAHA, Neb. - Six years ago when Ak-Sar-Ben closed, live horse racing in Nebraska was all but dead.

And then came Horsemen's Park, and Omaha was back in the racing game. Well, sort of.

Omaha won't be a racing hot spot anytime soon, but Horsemen's Park has accomplished what its creators, the Horsemen's Benevolent Protective Association, intended when the track opened on Jan. 3, 1998: It has kept live racing alive in Nebraska.

"Since 1998," said Horsemen's Park president Dick Moore, "we've contributed over $5 million to the horse racing industry in Nebraska."

But the park's intangible contributions are equally important, said Moore, the former vice-president of racing at Ak-Sar-Ben. Crowds have grown consistently and younger fans have been making their way to the betting windows. "Somehow we've managed to buck the nationwide problem of the aging fan base," Moore said. "We bring in new, younger racing fans every day."

With limited stable space and a small track ringed by little more than bleachers, Horsemen's Park was never intended to be a full-time racing facility. And if it weren't for a law that requires the park to have one race per year, Horsemen's Park might never have seen live racing.

"It's no Belmont Park, that's for sure," said self-proclaimed, lifelong racing fan Dale Stanocek of Omaha. "But it gets the job done."

Horsemen's Park may make a few new fans when its fourth annual abbreviated racing meet begins Friday. The meet will end Sunday with the $100,000 Omaha Handicap, also in its fourth year. Over the three days of racing, Omahans will have the opportunity to watch a grand total of 12 live races. But despite the brevity of the racing season, the three-day meet has joined the College World Series as one of Omaha's major annual sporting celebrations.

"The people of Omaha have supported us from the very beginning," Moore said. "We think of this weekend as a thank-you to them."

Moore said that although the races will be the main event this weekend, additional attractions such as live music and a food court will make for a carnival-like atmosphere. Attendance at the past years' events has approached 10,000 per day, even though the park holds only 3,000 in its indoor facility.

John Albertson of Omaha said he plans to make an early trip to Horsemen's Park this weekend to make sure he has a good parking spot and a good seat.

"I couldn't believe the crowds here last year," Albertson said. " I felt like kneeling and thanking God when I finally found a parking spot."