12/24/2002 12:00AM

Whither Omaha's bones?


OMAHA, Neb. - Winning a Triple Crown is hard enough. But finding the remains of Omaha, the 1935 Triple Crown winner who is buried in the city for which he was named, may prove even harder.

If, that is, anyone bothers to look for his grave when the Ak-Sar-Ben grandstand is razed.

After his death in 1959, Omaha was laid to rest at Ak-Sar-Ben Race Track with a memorial commissioned to mark his final resting place under the grandstand. As Ak-Sar-Ben grew in the late 1960's and early 1970's, the grandstand and clubhouse areas were expanded, and Omaha's memorial was relocated to the Circle of Champions, west of the main entrance. His remains, however, were never exhumed, and were entombed under the clubhouse addition.

"When the expansion occurred, some of the site may have been disturbed," said Tim Schmad, former president of racing operations at Ak-Sar-Ben. "The old story is that they weren't all that careful when they were renovating. I'm confident the remains are fairly intact."

According to Leslie Douglas of the Ak-Sar-Ben Future Trust, a nonprofit group that retains ownership of about 70 acres of the former racetrack grounds, no decision has been made on the grave. "The monument will remain here for the time being," she said. "Everyone can be assured that the monument definitely won't be demolished and a fitting location will be found."

But when asked if Omaha's remains would also be moved, Douglas could not give a definite answer: "Truthfully, I don't think anybody knows exactly where the remains are," she said. "I think the intent would be to preserve them if possible."

Ak-Sar-Ben flourished in the 1980's, ranking among the top 10 tracks in the nation in attendance. But racing at Ak-Sar-Ben soon declined and the track was sold by the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben, a philanthropic organization, to Douglas County in 1992. After three years of continuing declines in attendance and handle, the track was permanently closed following the 1995 season.

A portion of the property is now owned by First Data Resources, a credit card processing firm, which in turn donated 70 acres of the land to the University of Nebraska-Omaha for a technology campus. The grandstand remains, silently overlooking a soccer field and office complex. The 5,200-plus seat Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum, which was connected to the grandstand in the early 1970's, was closed last September, with both the coliseum and grandstand now facing the wrecking ball.

In his day, Omaha was considered one of the great stayers. Foaled at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., in 1932. Omaha was trained by James "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons and ridden by Willie Saunders. He was sired by Gallant Fox, who also won the Triple Crown. Of the 11 Triple Crown winners, Gallant Fox and Omaha are the only father-son duo.

As a 4-year-old, Omaha journeyed to England and became the only Triple Crown winner to compete overseas. He captured the Victor Wild Stakes at 1 1/2 miles and the two-mile Queen's Plate at Kempton Park. He won 9 of 22 starts and earned $154,755.

After being retired to stud at Claiborne in 1937, Omaha was moved to Lookover Stallion Station in New York in 1943. He stood there until 1950, when he was relocated to the Grove Porter Farm outside of Nebraska City, Neb. He remained there until his death in 1959, covering about 20 mares a year. While never prominent as a stallion, his daughter, Flaming Top, would become the third dam of Nijinsky II. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1965.

Although, no formal proposals on the use of the Ak-Sar-Ben land have been put forth, it is expected the land will be a part of an expansion by the technology campus. According to a recent report in the Omaha World-Herald, the Future Trust is running out of funds and cannot afford to demolish the grandstand and coliseum, which is estimated to cost $4 million to $8 million.

The possibility that Omaha's remains will be lost forever has been a source of anger and amazement to some Nebraska racing fans. Some see an opportunity to correct the original injustice of moving the monument and leaving the remains.

"I'd like to see them recovered," Schmad said. "But I'm just an onlooker now."