Updated on 09/15/2011 12:34PM

Gardenia gets transplanted


In recent seasons, the richest race of the Ellis Park meet, the $200,000 Gardenia Stakes, had been run on the fourth Saturday in August. But this year, with its new Aug. 11 date, officials at the Henderson, Ky., track are attempting to see if they can attract a larger crowd than the 4,500 or so who have been attending.

The new date comes before local schools open for the year. "Being so close to Labor Day, we thought we were kind of getting lost in the shuffle, especially because of the back-to-school issue," said Paul Kuerzi, Ellis general manager. "Not only were some of our younger employees leaving to go back to school, but also our younger patrons and people with school-age kids."

The Gardenia also had been run on the same day as the Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Understandably, the race was dwarfed by the Spa classic.

"Media-wise, we were pretty much off the screen," noted Kuerzi.

Adding to the allure of Gardenia Day this year is the addition of the Ellis Park Breeders' Cup Handicap as part of the program. The Ellis BC previously had been a seven-furlong race that served as a Gardenia stepping-stone early in the meet. But with the reshuffling of the stakes schedule, the HBPA Handicap, to be run Saturday, is the only local prep for the 1 1/8-mile Gardenia. Meanwhile, the Ellis BC has been shortened to six furlongs, giving disparate options to trainers with a top filly or mare.

This year, the other big races in North American on Aug. 11 are the Sword Dancer at Saratoga, the La Jolla at Del Mar, and the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer.

Track perseveres

When Churchill merged with Arlington last year, the conventional thought was that Arlington would put a mighty squeeze on Ellis, its new sister track. After all, Ellis and Arlington overlap in dates, and Churchill made a hefty investment in Arlington.

But thanks partly to a major pass giveaway and sensational weather, Ellis experienced a 32-percent increase in ontrack attendance last year. This year, purses are scheduled to average $197,000 per day, highest in the track's 80-year history.

"We truthfully haven't seen any measurable impact," said Kuerzi. "In terms of horses, we have 101 entered on our 10-race opener Wednesday, and that's a trend we're optimistic will continue. We also have the advantage of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund, which is quite an incentive for horsemen with eligible Kentucky-breds. And business-wise, since we're obviously not in the same geographic market as Arlington, there's been no visible conflict."

Court out for four straight titles

If Jon Court can win the jockey title at Ellis for the fourth straight year, he will become just the second rider to do so. Mike McDowell led every year from 1984- through 1987.

Two other jockeys have won three straight Ellis titles: The late Leroy Tauzin (twice, in 1969-71 and 1978-80), and Jim McKnight (1975-77), who is still active in Canada.

* The biggest track in Kentucky? By one measure, it's Ellis Park. The 1 1/8-mile circumference of the main track is longer than that of Keeneland (1 1/16 miles), Churchill (one mile) and Turfway Park (one mile).