06/30/2011 2:48PM

Ellis Park opens head to head with Churchill

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A rite of summer gets under way Saturday in western Kentucky when Ellis Park, fondly known as “The Pea Patch,” opens its doors for a 31-day meet.

The first three programs (Saturday, Sunday, Monday) of the Ellis meet will clash directly with its bigger Kentucky brother, Churchill Downs, reprising a similar overlap that occurred in 2007 and 2008. Management at both tracks say business during the Fourth of July weekend is too good to give up, and with the approval of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, something of a Darwinian situation exists ever so briefly on this circuit.

“Going head-to-head for the first weekend does make it a little tough on us,” said Dan Bork, racing secretary at Ellis since 2007. “We’ve also got competition for horses from a number of other tracks all summer, such as Arlington, Mountaineer, River Downs, and the Indiana tracks. But we averaged 9.3 starters per race last year while in pretty much the same situation, and a lot of that had to do with how we write plenty of races on the grass and for 2-year-olds. If we can stay over nine per race again this meet, I’ll be very happy.”

Ellis cut back to a three-day schedule in 2009 partly in response to a lesser availability of participating horses and trainers. The stakes schedule also fell victim in a major way, and only the Grade 3, $100,000 Gardenia Stakes and two $50,000 races made the cut this year. The Gardenia, a one-mile race for fillies and mares, is set for Aug. 13.

Bork, also the racing secretary at Gulfstream Park since 2010, said he intends to card eight races every Friday, and nine apiece on Saturdays and Sundays. First post daily is 12:50 p.m. Central.

The opening card is typical of the fare that will be offered throughout a meet that ends on Labor Day, Sept. 5, with the feature race, the eighth, being a $28,000 allowance for filly-mare turf sprinters.

The Ellis jockey colony once again will be far above average, with Calvin Borel, Corey Lanerie, Jon Court, and Jamie Theriot among the riders expected to participate on a frequent basis.

Ellis, located on the outskirts of Henderson on a thin strip of Kentucky land situated north of the Ohio River, has survived a number of crises in recent years, including a tornado in November 2005, periodic flooding from the river, and numerous threats by Ron Geary, the track’s owner since 2006, to shut down forever unless alternative gaming comes to Kentucky tracks. The track no longer offers year-round simulcasting, as a means of contracting its business expenses.

Before 2007 and 2008, Ellis’s opening overlap with Churchill also occurred for several years in the mid-1990s. Although horseplayers probably don’t mind being offered both tracks for a short span, there are some logistical issues in terms of onsite personnel such as racing officials, chart crews, and the like.

Molded loosely on Saratoga when built in 1922, Ellis long has been known for its laid-back, country-style atmosphere and sultry weather. The main track is 1 1/8 miles in circumference, and it is actually soybeans, not peas, that are grown and harvested in the spacious infield.

Non-parimutuel races involving ostriches, camels, and weiner dogs have become very popular with the local fans in recent years. Weiner dogs kick off that schedule Monday.