Ostrich and camel races drive in crowd of 16,000 to Horsemen’s Park

Perfect weather and the chance to watch some pretty wild races led to a big crowd Sunday at Horsemen’s Park.

An estimated 16,000 came for Sunday’s Family Fun Day. The seven-race live card was spiced by the addition of two exhibition races featuring ostriches and camels.

“This is definitely the biggest crowd in the four years I’ve been here,” General Manager Mike Newlin said. “The toughest part was that we had some traffic issues to work through.”

Newlin said the facility hoped for an assist from the Omaha Police Department to deal with the increased traffic but that help didn’t come until two hours after the 2 p.m. first post.

“I think they were spread kind of thin because of the Nebraska baseball game going on downtown,” Newlin said. “We had some frustrated fans, but we handled everything the best we could.”

Among the throng along the rail was Tim Seelhoff of Syracuse, Nebraska. He brought his wife and two young sons to watch the races for the first time.

“We don’t get a chance to come up very often,” he said. “It’s a great atmosphere today and we’re having a lot of fun.”

Perhaps the biggest draw — even more than the $1 hot dogs and sodas — was the ostrich race. Five brave jockeys volunteered to ride the birds about 100 yards to the delight of the cheering fans.

When it was over, Scott Bethke rode Big Bird to victory. Despite two jockeys falling off their ostriches, there were no claims of “fowl.”

“They told me the one I was on was really fast,” Bethke said. “I was just holding on the best I could.”

Bethke, who later won the camel race aboard Cameltariat, said he didn’t think twice about stepping up to ride in both races.

“I think it’s good for racing,” he said. “The fans love to see it and it definitely helped bring out the crowd today.”

Jake Olesiak, one of the leading riders at the track, also took part in both races.

“I’m pretty sure I like riding horses better,” he said. “They’re a lot more stable than an ostrich.”

Newlin also joined in the festivities, riding Mike Mike Mike to a second-place finish in the camel race.

“I think I was giving away a little too much weight to the jockeys,” he said. “I didn’t get beat by much, but that’s probably the last time I’ll be riding one of those.”

As for the more traditional racing Sunday, three jockeys — Alberto Pusac, Chris Fackler and Armando Martinez — each rode two winners. Ricardo Martinez posted the other victory.

The on-track live mutuel handle was $114,590. The total handle on the Horsemen’s Park races was $157,658.70.

Newlin said his staff did the best it could under the busy circumstances and gave credit to the fans for their patience.

“I thank those fans that braved the crowds and the long lines and would encourage them to come out on a normal day of live racing,” he said. “We only have four days left.”

The facility will resume its live meet at 6 p.m. Friday.