04/07/2009 12:00AM

Commission lets Ellis cut dates in half

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission on Tuesday approved a request by Ellis Park to run a 23-day meet in 2009, down sharply from the track's earlier request to run 48 days during the late-summer months.

Ellis Park owner Ron Geary requested the amended race dates because of concerns that the track will have difficulty filling its races during its July-to-early-September meet because of competition for horses at tracks in Indiana. Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs both added race days this year because of new subsidies from slot-machine gambling. Many of those race days overlap with Ellis's meet.

Under the new schedule, the Ellis Park meet will still begin on July 11 and end on Sept. 7, but racing will be reduced from five days a week in July to four days a week, and the track will race only on Saturdays and Sundays during August and September. Geary said that Ellis may add Fridays to its August and September schedule if field size in July equals or exceeds the track's average figure of 7.6 horses per race last year.

"Field size is the most important factor," Geary said. "We're going to have a lot less horses on campus, and field size impacts directly on handle."

Representatives of the two horsemen's groups in Kentucky, the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, said at the meeting that they had signed off on the dates-reduction plan.

Kentucky racetracks have been aggressively lobbying the state for slot-machine gambling over the past several years, but efforts to legalize slots at racetracks have not gotten further than a floor vote in one house. Geary and other racing officials tied the dates reduction directly to the inability of Ellis Park to offer purses on par with the Indiana tracks and a new Pennsylvania track, Presque Isle Downs, which opened two years ago for the sole purpose of receiving a slot-machine license.

Commissioners said they sympathized with Ellis Park's plight, and chairman Robert Beck pledged to bring up the situation during a meeting he has scheduled with Kentucky's governor, Steve Beshear, on Wednesday.

Kentucky Downs, a small, all-turf track near the Tennessee border, also requested that its dates be pared this year, from six to four, citing the same concern that the track will have difficulty attracting horses. The commission unanimously approved the request.

Also at the meeting, the commission approved a request by Churchill Downs to run three night-racing cards, on two Fridays, June 19 and June 26, and one Thursday, July 2. Jim Gates, a Churchill official, said the lights were being installed temporarily and that the track would weigh the possibility of holding additional night cards in the future based on results for the three night cards. First post would be 6 p.m. each night, with the last of 11 races scheduled for 11 p.m.

Churchill also received approval to offer a pick three that will link the Kentucky Oaks, held on Friday, May 1, with the Woodford Reserve Stakes and Kentucky Derby, held on Saturday, May 2. The commission also approved Churchill's request to reduce the minimum wager for its pick four to 50 cents. Keeneland Racecourse also has a 50-cent minimum for its pick four.

* After the meeting, Lisa Underwood, the commission's executive director, said the commission had received a hearing officer's recommendation on an appeal by Dr. Rod Stewart, a veterinarian, of a five-year suspension issued in 2007 after investigators discovered vials of cobra venom inside a cooler in the barn of trainer Patrick Biancone at Keeneland. Underwood said that it was her "understanding" that the recommendation was to uphold the five-year suspension.

Under the rules of the commission, the recommendation must be approved by the full commission, after any objections are attached by either commission representatives or Stewart's counsel. The commission could vote on the recommendation at either its May or June meeting, Underwood said.