SOUTH SIOUX CITY | Atokad Park was once again abuzz with the sound of cheering and pounding hooves Saturday afternoon as Ho Chunk Inc. held its second racing event in two years at the new track.
There was a cool breeze underneath the overcast sky as bystanders clung to the lines of colored flags that separated the crowd from the track, watching the horses speed by.
"It's a horse race; you've got to come," South Sioux City resident Jan Brodersen said of why she attended. "It's something different to do."
This was the second year in a row the rejuvenated race track at Atokad Park held horse racing. Last year, the first since being built by Ho-Chunk Inc. at the site of the former Atokad Downs, the furlong-length track had held one three-horse race.
Alexcia Boggs, director of development for Ho-Chunk, said the comments from the event-goers had been mostly positive in the first year, but many recommended holding a few more races. Ho-Chunk listened and boosted the number to three this year.
Boggs said for the second year in a row, she was pleased with the turnout.
"The turnout actually is really impressive," she said about 15 minutes before the first race. "I know we had 300 souvenir glasses, and the glasses are gone. I definitely think probably 300 or 400 people so far."
Atokad dates back to 1956. Like other Nebraska thoroughbred tracks, it fell on hard times starting in the 1990s as casino gambling was introduced in neighboring Iowa.
Ho-Chunk, the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, purchased Atokad in 2016 with the hopes of eventually turning the property into a casino. But an effort to amend the state's constitution to allow casino gambling at horse tracks failed to garner enough signatures to make the ballot last November.
To maintain its racing license from the state, the South Sioux City track must continue to hold at least one live race per year.
Brodersen, who hadn't made it last year but had been to races in years past at the former Atokad Downs, said she was pleased to see the family-friendly atmosphere of the event.
As of the first race -- which ended with Nic a Jack edging out Cherishistheword to claim a $3,500 purse -- she hadn't placed a bet. But she said she had plans to as the afternoon went on.
She also said she hoped the annual races would eventually turn into something much bigger.
"We'd like to see them actually be able to get a casino or racetrack over here," Brodersen said. "Nebraska needs something like this, especially when we're this close to Iowa."
Mark Peterson, who was standing next to her, agreed.
"We’d like to see it go further," he said.
While the races -- spaced 40 minutes apart -- served as the main draw, there was no shortage of other diversions for attendees in between. Activities included bounce houses, face painting and pony rides, as well as a raffle, food vendors, a crazy hat contest and live music.
Behind the grandstands, Patty Rarrat and her 3-year-old grandson, Carter, stood in a line of families waiting for a free pony ride. She said Carter already been on one that afternoon and could hardly wait to go again.
"He loves the horses," she said. "It's so good that it's kid-friendly. They don't charge you to come in, and I was surprised that all this stuff was free, too."