07/09/2010 11:00PM

Ellis gets going in tough times for state business

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Just as the Ellis Park meet was set to start this weekend, disturbing news shook the Kentucky racing industry when officials at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., announced Wednesday that the once-proud Kentucky Cup series is being scrapped because of financial considerations.

Ellis and Turfway are in the same foxhole when it comes to the financial war being waged on Kentucky racing. Unlike its bigger brothers - Churchill Downs, which has the Kentucky Derby, and Keeneland, which has the lucrative horse sales - these two tracks have no such built-in security. Both have been under heavy siege for years from riverboat casinos and slots-fueled tracks in neighboring states, and lacking the competitive balance that officials at both tracks say is needed in the form of slots at state racetracks, both are in a meet-to-meet fight for mere survival. Both have been forced to cut race dates, long-standing stakes, and other aspects of their racing programs to the extent that they have been reduced to bare-bones operations.

"It's just a sad situation," said Marty Maline, the longtime executive director of the Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "There's always been a certain swagger about us, thinking Kentucky racing is No. 1. But in terms of purses, now we can't even compete with Indiana Downs and Hoosier Park, much less other major circuits, and it's frightening."

Maline described Turfway's president, Bob Elliston, as "crestfallen" when Elliston phoned him to relay the news about the Kentucky Cup being canceled. Since its 1994 inaugural, the Kentucky Cup had been a major fall highlight on the state racing calendar.

"The Kentucky Cup was one of the last vestiges where we had a day we could shine at one of our smaller tracks," said Maline. "It's a terribly difficult situation."

Ellis Park's owner, Ron Geary, said the Turfway news is a jarring indicator of the downward spiral that continues to grip the Kentucky circuit.

"We're seeing the signature industry of Kentucky fade away before our very eyes," Geary said Friday, the day before Ellis began its 27-day meet. "The fact is it's because of the obstacles and opposition of a certain contingent of Republican senators and representatives in the legislature."

Before the 2009 meet began, Geary said Ellis had been losing money at an alarming rate and insisted it would be the last one for the Henderson, Ky., track, although ultimately he relented last fall in applying for 2010 dates. For the long term, however, Geary is adamant that Ellis and Turfway can remain in business only if the Kentucky legislature provides the industry relief in the form of alternative gaming.

"I really didn't think we could make it, but we've made some changes around here to our business model," he said, referring primarily to Ellis scaling back on costly off-season simulcast operations. "Maybe we can limp along a little longer, but the ultimate situation is we cannot compete with these other tracks that have the slots. Something has just got to be done, and soon."

Juveniles a strong point

It's no Saratoga or Del Mar in this respect, but Ellis is a summer track where occasionally a future equine star will get his or her start. Ellis's racing secretary, Dan Bork, recently pointed out that eventual Grade 1 winners Pure Clan, Noble's Promise, and Dominican all had their first starts or first wins in a maiden special weight race in recent seasons at Ellis.

"The 2-year-old maiden ranks are deep here every year," said Bork. "That's probably the one category where we're strongest. That, plus the fact we'll run three or four turf races every day. Maidens and turf generally make for bigger fields, which is what your fans are always asking for."

Last year, Ellis averaged a healthy 9.2 horses per race, working on the three-day-a-week schedule that once again is in place for this meet. Bork said he will be carding eight races on Fridays and nine races on Saturdays and Sundays until further notice. "Last year we started adding a race here and there, depending on what we had to draw from," he said. "That could happen again as we go along."

* If you notice a different look to the Ellis simulcast signal than in years past, there's a reason. Ellis has hired Teleview Racing Patrol as the new contractor to replace Churchill Downs Simulcast Productions, which had provided those services until its contract expired last December. Teleview is contracted by about 20 other Thoroughbred tracks in North America, including Gulfstream Park and Oaklawn Park.