08/19/2009 11:00PM

Court glad to be back riding closer to home


Sometimes when he's riding in a race at Ellis Park, Jon Court gets an unmistakable case of deja vu.

"In a delightful kind of way," said Court. "It's a different atmosphere, that's for sure."

After he rode with a healthy measure of success for five years (2004-08) on the rugged Southern California circuit, Court and his wife, Krystal Lynn, decided to move closer to their roots. Court rode at the Oaklawn Park meet that began last January, and then the couple returned with their young daughter, Aubrey, to their longtime home in Shelbyville, Ky., in April.

Some racing fans might see Court as having taken a step backward in his 28-year riding career, but there were mitigating circumstances that led to him leaving California - most notably, a limited number of riding opportunities due in part to shrinking field sizes - and the bottom line is he is happy where he is.

"We're so much closer to home," said Court, 48. "Life is good here."

Going into this weekend at Ellis in Henderson, Ky., Court had ridden 21 winners and was tied for leading jockey with Corey Lanerie. Having been the Ellis kingpin for years - he set a track mark by topping the standings for five meets in a row, 1998-2002 - he is not necessarily intent on adding another title, but is reveling in the competition nonetheless.

"Ellis Park is in a league all its own," said Court. "It's a summer meet, family-oriented, with a sense of festivity that reminds me of the California fair circuit, like Pomona [Fairplex Park]." He added with a laugh, "Although they actually have a fair out there."

Court said he had mixed feelings about leaving the popular reality-television series "Jockeys," which was set to return Friday night with the premiere of its second season on the Animal Planet cable network. By leaving Southern California, Court also left the show, which is documented several episodes into the second season.

"I did gain some popularity with fans, although it hadn't become overwhelming in a daunting kind of way," said Court. "I've run into people in airports who recognized me but had never even been to a racetrack, so it's always encouraging to know we're building our fan base in a new way.

"My only regret is that I got really friendly with some of the riders on a different level of employment. I enjoyed that immensely, although it did get a little bit unnerving with the cameras and crew always following you. It's a little unbecoming of your general nature."

For Court, the "Jockeys" notoriety was just another mile marker in his career. A native of Gainesville, Fla., he began riding in 1980 at the now defunct Centennial Park in Colorado before steadily inching his way up the jockey hierarchy. Besides at Ellis, he has won riding titles at Oaklawn, Birmingham, Kentucky Downs, and Hoosier Park. Just before leaving Kentucky for California, he won the Japan Dirt Cup in November 2003, and in 2007 he was voted the prestigious George Woolf Award by his fellow jockeys.

Into Friday, Court had ridden 3,429 winners for nearly $77 million in mount earnings. His best years, money-wise, came during his five-year stint in California, as his mounts earned more than $7.2 million in both 2005 and 2006. Humble yet confident, soft-spoken yet articulate, he counts himself among the luckiest people walking the earth.

"I've been very fortunate in very important ways, with my family and my riding career," said Court. "Wherever we are, we're just going to keep doing what we've been doing."

Bork adds Gulfstream to job duties

The folks at Ellis and throughout Kentucky were glad to hear this week that one of their own, Dan Bork, has been named to the prominent position of racing secretary at Gulfstream Park. Bork, 40, has been the racing secretary at Ellis for the last several years while also serving at various tracks throughout the United States, primarily Kentucky, ever since he graduated Kutztown State (Pa.) with a degree in business management.

"I've gotten quite a few texts and calls," Bork said early Thursday while making the two-hour commute from his home in Louisville, Ky., to Ellis. "I'm really looking forward to it."

Bork will work at the Keeneland and Churchill Downs meets this fall before leaving for south Florida around Dec. 1. The 2010 Gulfstream meet begins Jan. 3.

Bork said he will be happy to be reunited with Bernie Hettel, the former longtime Kentucky racing official who, along with Bill Murphy, heads the management team for Magna Entertainment Corp. at Gulfstream.

"I've got a lot of challenges ahead of me, and having Bernie and Bill there should help a whole lot," said Bork.

Supporters try to save Ellis

With just one stakes remaining at the meet, and with nothing better than an allowance race on tap, the highlight of the Saturday program at Ellis might well be the political rally to be held in the winner's circle after the fifth race (unless you count the weiner dog races set to begin at 9:45 a.m.). First post is 12:10 p.m.

"Ellis Forever," as the rally is being called, will feature commentary from industry advocates seeking to save Ellis from extinction after the 2009 meet ends Sept. 7. Owner Ron Geary has repeatedly said that financial woes will force him to close this 87-year-old track unless a satisfactory solution - namely, alternative gaming at state racetracks - can be attained through the Kentucky legislative process.

The last stakes of the Ellis meet, the $50,000 Cliff Guilliams Memorial for older horses at 1 1/16 miles on turf, is set for closing day.