07/01/2014 1:45PM

Ellis Park opens meet with focus on turf racing, juveniles

Steve Kweskin
Ellis Park opens its 29-day summer meet Thursday.

It’s that sweltering time of year when horsemen and racing fans get their glaze on at Ellis Park, the western Kentucky track that kicks off a 29-day summer meet with an eight-race card Thursday.

Dan Bork, now in his eighth year as racing secretary at the track fondly known as “The Pea Patch,” said he expects the customary summer heat to be matched by the level of competition on the racetrack.

“We had some really nice 2-year-olds get their starts here last summer – Ride On Curlin, Medal Count, Rosalind, a couple others,” Bork said. “I’d sure hope we have the same kind of quality here not only in our 2-year-old races but also in some other categories, especially considering all the turf racing we’re planning on having.”

Half of the Thursday opener is scheduled for turf, while four of the nine races set for the Fourth of July card Friday also are on turf.

“The course is in great shape, and we hope to use it as much as possible, given how those races tend to attract the bigger fields that the bettors like,” Bork said.

Bork said he expects per-day purses to match 2013 levels of about $140,000, with some of that money coming from the year-round Instant Racing machines installed at Ellis almost two years ago. As usual, the meet highlight is the Grade 3, $100,000 Gardenia Stakes, a one-mile race for fillies and mares set for Aug. 9. The Gardenia is one of four stakes, the first of which comes Saturday with the $50,000 Ellis Park Turf.

Among the local trainers eager to get going is John Hancock, who said he has 14 2-year-olds ready to run.

“When they fill ‘em, I’ll be in ‘em,” Hancock said. “I think I’ve got my best crop of young horses yet.”

Many starters (and winners) can be expected to ship in from Churchill Downs, located a little more than two hours east of Ellis. Among the trainers who will be represented throughout the meet are D. Wayne Lukas and Dale Romans, both of whom are leaving behind a number of horses not good enough to travel with them to Saratoga.

Opening day is the only Thursday of the meet. Otherwise, Ellis will operate on a three-day schedule of Friday through Sunday, with the only other exception being the final day of the meet, Labor Day, Sept. 1.

Ellis is offering various giveaways to ontrack fans on opening weekend, including televisions and iPads. The ever-popular weiner-dog races are set for July 12, 13, and 19, with zebra and ostrich races held July 26.

The race caller for the second straight year is Keith Nelson, the former longtime voice at the Woodlands in Kansas City, Kan.

First post daily is 12:50 p.m. Central.