03/12/2009 11:00PM

Ellis cutting back on race dates


The most pressing problem on the Kentucky racing circuit - no alternative gaming - has begun to reach crisis proportions. Ron Geary, the owner of Ellis Park, told the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission this week that he will reduce race dates this year and will not open the Henderson, Ky., track for the 2010 season, while other track officials are saying they are in similarly dire straits.

Kentucky racing executives have been pleading for years with state legislators to allow alternative gambling at tracks, but as the 2009 general assembly came to its scheduled end Friday, there still was no such relief in sight.

Geary, Kentucky's secretary of revenue under Gov. John Y. Brown in the early 1980s, told the commission during a lengthy presentation Tuesday that unless tracks and horsemen are put in a more competitive position with other racing states, most notably neighboring Indiana, the state's signature industry is in huge trouble.

"It's very difficult to have a race meet when you can't attract horses because your state government won't allow you to be competitive with neighboring states," Geary said Wednesday.

Geary said he is considering an abbreviated 2009 meet that might consist of three days of racing per week, instead of the scheduled five, or clustering races on various weekends while also racing more during a two-week period (July 16-29) when neither of the Indiana tracks, Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs, will be in direct competition. He said he definitely will not fulfill the 48-date allotment that Ellis is assigned.

Hoosier and Indiana Downs now are part of glitzy racinos that, according to Geary, are estimated to gross about $360 million in combined revenue this year.

"We'll do about $12 million in a year, and I simply cannot compete with that kind of differential," he said.

The Ellis developments ring all too familiar with Bob Elliston, the longtime president of Turfway Park in Florence, Ky. For years, Elliston has been telling anyone who will listen that Turfway is slowing dying on the vine, in no small part because of the casino riverboats located just across the Ohio River in Indiana.

The legislators apparently are not listening.

"What I've been saying all along is that Kentucky is in a different environment for competition," said Elliston, whose track has struggled mightily with filling races this winter. "Tracks in many other states have supplemental purse monies that allow their racing to be more attractive than what we can currently offer. It's an enormous difference."

Turfway, owned in part by the Keeneland Association, has not yet issued the type of do-or-die pronouncements that Geary has made. But there is no question that business at Turfway, like at Ellis, has suffered tremendously in recent years, while the bigger Kentucky tracks, Churchill Downs and Keeneland, have their own sets of major concerns relative to the alternative gaming issue.

Meanwhile, the state track with the least number of dates - Kentucky Downs, with six in September - probably will run fewer days in 2010 if tracks still don't have alternative gaming by then, track president Corey Johnsen told the commission Tuesday.

Nine lined up so far for Lane's End

While four Kentucky Derby prep races were to be run across the United States on Saturday, only one will be run next weekend - which will allow the pre-Derby spotlight to shine next Saturday on Turfway, where the annual showcase race, the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes, will be run for the 38th time.

As of Friday, there were at least nine known prospects for the Grade 2 Lane's End: A.P. Cardinal, Bittel Road, Flying Private, Hold Me Back, Jack Spratt, Loch Dubh, Orthodox, Parade Clown, and West Side Bernie.

The likely favorites for the 1 1/8-mile race are Bittel Road, a Todd Pletcher-trained colt who most recently was fourth in the Feb. 7 Lewis Memorial at Santa Anita, and West Side Bernie, third in the Jan. 31 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park for trainer Kelly Breen.

The Lane's End is one of five stakes on the March 21 card, with one of them also for 3-year-olds - the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes, which also has about eight probables at this early juncture, according to the racing office. ESPN2 will provide television coverage beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern.

Races added to Derby, Oaks cards

Churchill has received permission from the racing commission to add one race apiece to its Kentucky Oaks and Derby cards on May 1 and 2, respectively. The races will be added on the front end, meaning both cards will start a half-hour earlier than usual at 10:30 a.m. Eastern. The additions bring the Oaks card to 12 races and the Derby card to 13.

Meanwhile, the Churchill stable area opened March 6, while the track was opened for training on Monday. Churchill typically closes the stable area for routine annual maintenance for about 10 weeks every winter.

Cruguet celebrates 70th

Jean Cruguet, who rode Seattle Slew to win the Triple Crown in 1977, celebrated his 70th birthday on March 7 at the newly renovated Post Castle resort located just a few minutes west of Keeneland on U.S. 60. Many of Cruguet's friends and colleagues were in attendance, and during a special presentation and toast to him, a familiar plea was made for calls to be made and letters to be written for Cruguet to be elected to the Racing Hall of Fame.

Ten jockeys have won the Triple Crown, and Cruguet is one of three not in the Hall of Fame. The others are William Saunders (Omaha, 1935) and Warren Mehrtens (Assault, 1946).

Crawfish boil called off

Among the other victims of the Turfway budget crunch is the annual crawfish boil. Track officials estimate the event had been held the Tuesday evening before the Lane's End for nearly 20 years. To take its spot on the calendar, the Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association will host its annual dinner and dance, with a Western theme, at the Receptions banquet and conference center in nearby Erlanger, Ky.

Other special events leading up to the Lane's End include a players' party on Friday for Platinum and Elite members of the FasTrack loyalty program.

* Turfway has canceled its third consecutive Monday card for lack of entries. The scratched March 16 program was on the original schedule, but provisional makeup cards the last two Mondays (March 2 and 9) also had to be scrapped.

* The feature on Sunday's nine-race card is a $31,100 allowance (race 7) in which Timeless Fashion and Canela, both stakes winners at Turfway this winter, head a field of six older horses going 1 1/16 miles on the Polytrack.

* Former trainer Tom Van Berg, the son of Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, is having his head shaved again Sunday afternoon in downtown Louisville as part of the annual St. Baldrick's fundraising effort on behalf of childhood cancer. Van Berg, whose 4-year-old son, Tanner, has leukemia, has asked that donations be made through the Kentucky HBPA office at (502) 363-1077.