The last time I wrote about Horsemen’s Park's live racing meet, about a half decade ago, the money people behind the track got so pissed that they pulled their advertising from The Reader. In retrospect, the article was as complementary as a writer could be describing what essentially was and is a family-friendly indoor-outdoor celebration of gambling and booze.
So I have little faith that the fine folks behind Horsemen’s will be cutting out and framing this recap of my time spent there last Sunday afternoon. But let me preface it by saying this: The annual track meet at Horsemen’s Park is the best-run and most-enjoyable outdoor event held in Omaha. Nothing even comes close. From the parking situation to the outdoor food/beverage/music set-up to the air-conditioned retreat from the oppressive summer heat, Horsemen’s Park is perfection.
This became clear while attending other outdoor events over the past few months. Both “The Taste of Omaha” and the College World Series “Fan Fest” were nothing more than disorganized swap meets that served overpriced food and booze to the city’s white trash elite, forced to stumble through a maze of vendor junk tents while looking for vacant blue porta-potties.
Contrast that with the serenity experienced Sunday at Horsemen’s Park as I took a bite from a reasonably priced Italian sausage ($5), a sip from an ice-cold beer ($3) and studied a tip sheet between races standing outside the paddock, where the regal champions circled in the ageless tradition of the pre-race parade.
The crowd before Sunday’s opening race seemed lighter than last year, probably because it was. No doubt the ongoing heat wave was keeping people away, though I’ve never known a Horsemen’s Park track meet that wasn’t conducted in sub-Saharan conditions. Temperatures already were in the 90s at 2 p.m., taking their toll on the overweight and infirm, like the guy with sweat dripping off his elbows who passed me wearing a ragged brown T-shirt that declared, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord.” A lit smoke draped from his lower lip as he stumbled through the crowd, staring intently at a crinkled Racing Form. Someone was going to Hit It Big today, with a little help from the Lord.
I certainly could have used His help.
My plan -- bet the longest long shot in every race. With each race only fielding five or six horses, I figured it was only a matter of time until one came in and paid for my entire day.
My partner in crime, on the other hand, followed her usual system -- picking horses based on their names. She liked a nag named Farewell Broadway in the first race and put $5 on her nose at 7 to 1. I watched the red horse, Shiloh’s Pack Boom -- its lousy name was probably the reason it was pulling 10-to-1 odds. I started slow, betting $2 to “win” and “place.” No “show” bets were allowed because only five horses were racing.
We placed our bets and headed across the griddle-like rock pathway to claim a stretch of shade in the covered grandstands. While we waited ‘til post time, I tapped in a few observations into my iPhone: 1. There’s an important difference between a guy who wears a sleeveless T-shirt and a guy who has cut the sleeves off his T-shirt. 2. The health of the track’s bugler playing “Call to Post” has me concerned. 3. Horsemen’s Park continues to be a big family event, evidenced by the number of strollers and children playing tag behind the grandstand while mom and dad fought over the daily double.
And just like that, they were off in a literal cloud of dust. Few things are as exciting as a horse race, especially when you have $4 riding on its outcome, unless of course, your horse looks lost and confused like mine did coming in dead last by about three lengths. The favorite won, paying only $3.60 on a $2 bet, hardly worth the effort of betting. I make a mental note that such rationalization is probably the first sign of my transformation into a sick, hardened gambler.
The rest of the afternoon was more of the same. I hit on a $2 show bet in the second, a horse named Cattle Baron, but it only payed $3.20. My third-race long-shot, Lottery Lass, was a Lottery Loser. By the fourth race the heat and the losing were taking their toll on me and all the frowning losers around me. My money was running out, and I remembered an important tip a friend once told me:
“Betting is easy. Just put your money on the horse you think will win.”
Think will win; not want to win. We walked back to the paddock and shouldered our way through the sweaty crowd of hardcore gamblers taking a once-over of the competitors before the next race. That’s when I saw the proud gray beauty trot by with the No. 7 on her side. The horse’s name: “Ittakestwobaby.” Holy shit, how could I lose? This beauty was worth any regret I would feel if a 20-1 came in without me.
I figured since this would be our last race of the day (the heat, just too much) that I’d follow tradition and drop a little more cash -- $5 across the board. My hunch proved right. Ittakestwobaby placed, but with the odds at 2 to 1 my take was only $17 on my $15 bet. But still...
As we made our way across the straw-like turf back to the car I was already making plans to return. For the first time, Horsemen’s is hosting two weekends of racing, which means you, too, can get in on the action this weekend.
Enjoy it while you can. The chit-chat at the betting windows Sunday was that, with Lincoln Race Course ending operations at the old State Fair Grounds after this year, the odds that Horsemen’s Park will draw enough horsemen for racing next year is a long-shot. I’m betting that they’re wrong.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at email@example.com.