07/02/2012 2:11PM

Ellis Park: Without competition, opener draws big fields


It has been 13 years since Ellis Park had the July 4 holiday all to itself. A decision last year by Churchill Downs officials to concede the date to their western Kentucky brethren figures to get the 29-day Ellis meet off to a solid start, especially in light of how entries for the Wednesday opener went.

A total of 98 horses, just two of them also-eligibles, were entered for the nine-race opener, a marked improvement over past years when Ellis and Churchill were in direct conflict. “That overlap thing doesn’t work very well,” said Dan Bork, now in his sixth year as racing secretary. “We’re pleased with how entries went for the first day. Hopefully it’ll be like this the whole meet.”

Owned and operated in Henderson, Ky., by Louisville businessman Ron Geary since Sept. 2006, Ellis and its fans are celebrating 90 years of existence, having opened in 1922 as the Green River Jockey Club. Situated on what is believed to be the only piece of Kentucky land on the north side of the Ohio River, Ellis long has been a summer haven for Kentucky horsemen and fans.

Having downsized its live schedule several years ago, Ellis now operates mostly on a three-day-a-week basis (Fridays through Sundays), with opening day and closing day (Labor Day, Sept. 3) being the lone exceptions. This contraction has worked well in regard to field size and allowing Ellis to offer decent purses – per-day allotments are expected to average about $140,000 this year, depending on what is paid out from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund – although Geary is hopeful that his plans to implement the Instant Racing games will allow Ellis to be more competitive with the Indiana tracks and others with the advantage of slots-fueled purses.

“I’m guardedly optimistic that, at long last, additional gaming may be coming to the rescue of Kentucky horse racing,” said Geary.

Ellis will have added credibility among horseplayers this year because of the strength of the jockey colony. The top three jockeys at the Churchill meet – Corey Lanerie, Shaun Bridgmohan, and Calvin Borel – will ride here regularly, as will Jesus Castanon, Jon Court, Brian Hernandez Jr., Greta Kuntzweiler, Victor Lebron, and Gabriel Saez.

The nominal feature for Wednesday is a $33,000, first-level allowance at 1 1/16 miles on the turf. Conservative Value, with Lanerie to ride, and Agent Di Nozzo, with Bridgmohan up, look like logical plays in a field of 10. Typical of the maiden-special and allowance races at this meet, the purse is heavily subsidized by KTDF money ($15,000), so clearly it behooves owners to have Kentucky-breds in those upper-level races.

The stakes schedule is a modest one, with just three races worth at least $50,000, led by the annual highlight, the Grade 3, $100,000 Gardenia Stakes on Aug. 11.

First post every day will be 12:50 p.m. Central.