07/02/2007 12:00AM

Claiming Crown one of many changes at Ellis


The Ron Geary era begins at Ellis Park when the Henderson, Ky., track opens a 46-day meet Wednesday.

The first week of the Ellis meet coincides with the final five-day stretch of the spring meet at Churchill Downs, marking a rare dates overlap on the Kentucky circuit. Officials with both tracks have said they intend to start their races at intervals that will make it easy for simulcast players to watch and wager on both tracks.

Geary, a Louisville businessman, actually headed Ellis management during the 2006 meet after agreeing last July to buy the track from Churchill Downs Inc., which had owned Ellis since 1998. The sale of the track closed in late September, after the meet ended.

Besides the opening-week overlap and the new ownership, the 2007 Ellis meet brings another new wrinkle: The Claiming Crown, the $600,000 series for blue-collar horses, will be run here Aug. 4, marking its first running in Kentucky and just the second outside of Canterbury Park since its debut in 1999. A record 357 nominations have been made to the seven-race series.

"Everybody is excited about the Claiming Crown coming here this year," said Bob Jackson, the longtime director of operations who is a holdover from several previous track administrations at Ellis. "We expect it to be a very large day for us."

Besides the Claiming Crown, the other high point of the meet will come Aug. 18 with the Big Four Stakes Day, highlighted by the lone graded stakes at Ellis, the Grade 3, $150,000 Gardenia Handicap.

The meet's first stakes will be the $50,000 HBPA Handicap on Saturday. The opening-day feature is a $23,500 second-level allowance at 5 1/2 furlongs on turf. Ready to Talk, entered off a respectable effort against tougher competition at Churchill, looks like a solid favorite for trainer Todd Pletcher in a full field of 12 fillies and mares.

This is the first time in nine years that Ellis has run on the Fourth of July holiday, which had been the traditional opening until Churchill bought the track. "Opening day is shaping up very well," said Jackson. "We've gotten a lot of interest from the community, and we're sold out on dining room reservations."

Luke Kruytbosch, the race-caller at both Churchill and Ellis, will remain in Louisville while Bill Downes fills in for him during the first week at Ellis. Kruytbosch isn't the only person with a scheduling conflict because of the dates overlap; several racing officials, and even more jockeys, will remain at Churchill this week before moving for the balance of the summer to Ellis, which will close, as always, on Labor Day, Sept. 3.

Among the jockeys expected to contend for the riding title is the defending champion, Miguel Mena, who will spot his competition a head start while staying at Churchill this week. Mena won the 2006 title with 45 winners. The training colony is led by Ralph Martinez, who topped the meet last year with 17 winners, while three women - Kim Hammond, Barbara McBride, and Lori Smock - are expected to be among the chief opposition.

This is the 84th race meet at Ellis, which opened in 1922 as Dade Park before being renamed James C. Ellis Park in 1955.