07/05/2008 12:00AM

Ellis Park closes on eve of new meet


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In a move that rocked Kentucky horsemen, Ron Geary, the owner of Ellis Park, formally announced Thursday that he is closing the 86-year-old track in Henderson, where a 44-day meet was scheduled to begin Friday and run through Sept. 1.

Geary, the Louisville businessman who bought Ellis from Churchill Downs in September 2006, decided Wednesday night to shutter the track over a dispute with horsemen on account-wagering revenue. Earlier Wednesday a U.S. District Court judge in Owensboro, Ky., denied a restraining order sought by Ellis that would have allowed the track to offer account wagering on its races.

Officials with the Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association said Thursday that they hoped to continue negotiating with Geary over the issue and that horsemen would suffer if Ellis remained closed. But they did not back off their position of blocking account-wagering companies from receiving the Ellis signal.

Churchill, which closes Sunday, has been stalemated with horsemen's groups on account-wagering since its meet opened April 26. Wagering on Churchill races through major networks such as Xpressbet and Twinspires has not been permitted during that time. Kentucky horsemen are seeking one-third of total revenues from account-wagering sources from both Churchill and Ellis.

Geary said in a lengthy statement on the Ellis website that he had decided to pursue legal relief after he was informed in a June 26 letter by the HBPA that the horsemen would not give their permission to send the Ellis signal to all account-wagering companies. Geary sought a restraining order on Tuesday to prevent the HBPA from blocking the signal, but U.S. District Judge Joseph H. McKinley ruled late Wednesday that he would not issue a restraining order, effectively upholding the horsemen's right to block the signal.

Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky division of the HBPA, said Thursday in a statement that the closing of Ellis was a "tragic situation that must be rectified" and that the HBPA "will use our best efforts to communicate with Ellis Park to arrive at a reasonable solution and to salvage the race meeting."

Although horsemen have been negotiating with Churchill through the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Group, the Ellis discussions have been between Geary and the local HBPA. But Maline said that it did not make sense for horsemen to settle with Ellis for a lesser percentage than what they have been asking from Churchill.

In seeking the restraining order, Geary said in court papers that he lost $2.7 million operating Ellis in 2007. He said he has bargained in good faith and has offered a greater percentage to horsemen than the amount originally agreed upon in signed contracts with account-wagering companies for 2008, but "it's all fallen on deaf ears."

Account wagering - the only real growth area in the parimutuel market - was only about 5 percent of total handle on Ellis racing last year, according to the HBPA. Geary has said the issue is the primary reason for his decision to close, but Ellis has faced other problems. One noteworthy problem has been the failure of Kentucky racetracks to get alternative gaming during the state legislative session earlier this year - a blow to smaller tracks such as Turfway Park and Ellis, which have struggled against competition from riverboat casinos and, more recently, against casino-subsidized tracks in Indiana.

Although terms of the 2006 sale from Churchill were not disclosed, it has been widely speculated that Geary purchased Ellis for a low price with the hope of eventually being able to offer alternative gaming. Ellis has been embroiled for months in a labor dispute with a local union representing longtime mutuel clerks, who have picketed Ellis since Jan. 1. The strike and its accompanying rancor have been more visible as the onset of the live meet approached.

Geary has not said what he intends to do with the Ellis property. All simulcast operations there have ceased, effective Thursday. Ellis had been used primarily as a simulcasting facility during the 10 months a year when live racing was not conducted, with off-season revenues helping to fund purses at the live meet.

Ellis was built in 1922 and has operated a race meet every year since 1925. The track was heavily damaged by tornadoes in November 2005. Its biggest days traditionally have been opening day, closing day, and the day of its lone graded race, the Grade 3 Gardenia Stakes, which was set this year for Aug. 16. Last year, Ellis hosted the $600,000 Claiming Crown series for the first time.

Trainer Ralph Martinez, who had planned to ship a sizable part of his stable to Ellis from Indiana Downs, which closes after this weekend, was the leading trainer last year at Ellis.

"This is a huge problem for me and a whole lot of other people," Martinez said. "I was planning on running a bunch over there. I couldn't wait for Ellis."

With the closing of Ellis, the next live dates on the Kentucky circuit will be at the fall meet at Turfway Park, which begins Sept. 3. Many top Kentucky outfits go elsewhere during July and August while cheaper horses have made up the bulk of Ellis races.

Besides drawing horses from its own stable area, Ellis also drew considerably from Churchill, where horses remain in training after the Louisville track closes its live meet. Bernie Flint, a Churchill-based trainer with 11 training titles at Ellis, said: "They're giving up quite a tradition in Kentucky, if in fact they're going to close. Where are the cheap horses going to go? Not all Thoroughbreds are titans. These cheaper horses need to make a living. I am extremely disappointed for the horsemen who really need Ellis Park."

The closing of a racetrack over a financial dispute is not without precedent. Arlington Park near Chicago was shuttered for two years, in 1998-99, when owner Richard Duchossois said his track was operating at a financial disadvantage. Arlington reopened in 2000, but through the years, other well-established American tracks have closed for good following similar difficulties, including Hialeah, Bowie, Garden State, Longacres, and Sportsman's Park.

- additional reporting by Matt Hegarty