09/05/2012 2:19PM

Hovdey: Ellis getting comfortable in the spotlight

Shigeki Kikkawa
Trainer Ron Ellis is pointing Rail Trip, Casino Host, and Include Me Out to the Breeders' Cup.

As an expert analyst for the TVG horse racing network, Ron Ellis gets paid to have an opinion. Not that he wouldn’t give it to you off camera for free. He’s right about as often as he’s wrong, which in this game is a pretty good average, and he has the advantage of having been there and done all that when it comes to explaining the intricacies of the Thoroughbred racehorse.

However, during the Del Mar meet this summer Ellis was content on several key occasions to let his horses do the talking. Training what could be best described as a boutique stable and running out of Hollywood Park, Ellis won with seven of just  25 starters, banking enough prize money to be sixth on the earnings list and taking three of the oldest stakes events at the track.

The Ellis stable began by winning the $200,000 San Diego Handicap with Rail Trip, followed that a week later winning the Clement L. Hirsch with Include Me Out, then polished off August winning the $200,000 Del Mar Handicap with Casino Host. Rail Trip and Include Me Out are owned by Samantha Siegel’s JayEmEss Stable, while Gary and Mary West own Casino Host, and all three runners now are making a beeline for Breeders’ Cup events at Santa Anita on either Nov. 2 or Nov.  3.

It helps that their Del Mar victories came tied with a bright red bow from the Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In program that waives pre-entry and entry fees for taking down specific races tied to Breeders’ Cup events. That means $30,000 in savings if Rail Trip runs in the Dirt Mile, $60,000 if Include Me Out runs in the Ladies’ Classic, and $90,000 if Casino Host tees it up in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

“Two of them are locked in to their races,” Ellis said earlier this week from Hollywood Park. “We’ll see how Rail Trip runs in the Awesome Again at Santa Anita before we decide on a race for him.”

A big effort at nine furlongs in the Sept. 29 Awesome Again – formerly the Goodwood – could nudge Ellis and Siegel in the direction of the 10-furlong Breeders’ Cup Classic instead of the Dirt Mile. There lingers in the memory Rail Trip’s victory at 1 1/4 miles in the 2009 Hollywood Gold Cup as well as his narrow miss the following year.

The ’09 Gold Cup marked Rail Trip’s last visit to the winner’s circle until the San Diego, which accounts for the giddy celebration that day. After a frustrating sojourn east with Rick Dutrow, Rail Trip returned to Ellis earlier this year, at age 7, with three good feet, courtesy of a frightful stumble at the start of a Gulfstream race.

The foot healed and Rail Trip went back to work, but Ellis was not inclined to remove the old battler from his comfort zone. For the second year running, Ellis kept his horses in Los Angeles and took advantage of the free vanning service for those who shipped and ran at Del Mar.

“I’d always rather be training at the track where they’re running, because shipping is always a disadvantage, just like a team playing on the road,” Ellis said. “But I was pleasantly surprised. I thought it was going to be a big trade-off that we wouldn’t run as well vanning down there, but that they’d stay sounder training up here.”

After the San Diego, Rail Trip returned to Del Mar to finish fourth to Dullahan and Game On Dude in the Pacific Classic.

“He held his weight well – that’s usually what you worry about shipping and running,” Ellis noted. “But he’s doing well, and I’m looking forward to running him in the Awesome Again. That will be the first time I’ve ever run him on the dirt. I’ve galloped him a lot on the training track at Hollywood, and he’s always looked good doing it. But I know that’s a lot different than racing on it. I guess the question will be is he going to be better on dirt or synthetics, or just as good on both.”

Casino Host a 4-year-old son of Dynaformer, should have been no surprise winning the Del Mar Handicap, at least considering his performance last April at Fair Grounds, where he won the Mervin Muniz while trained by Chad Brown. Losses in the Dixie and the Colonial Turf Cup took the edge off his growing reputation, but the shift to California has helped restore the glow. Ellis ran him once before the Del Mar Handicap – a third to champion Acclamation in the shorter Eddie Read.

“He’s come out of both his races here really good,” Ellis said. “I’d like to think he’s on the improve, but he was already pretty good to start with.”

As for Include Me Out, her win in the Hirsch erased the sour taste of the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park. She took a close one from Star Billing that day, and even in victory Ellis was guarded in proclaiming what would be next. As it turns out, there’s a good chance she will run in the newly christened Zenyatta Stakes at Santa Anita on the same day Rail Trip runs in the Awesome Again.

“She has had a helluva long year,” Ellis noted. “Starting at Del Mar last year she’s run right through. She’s a touch thinner than I’m happy with, but she’s got a nice break between that last race and her next one at Santa Anita. And she’s going to love getting back on the dirt. She only tolerates the synthetics.”

Ellis will be training his Breeders’ Cup horses at Hollywood Park until they must ship across town, 72 hours before their races.

“The Hollywood track is a good balance between dirt and synthetic,” Ellis said. “They get a little bit fitter over here, and you can go run on any surface training off it and your horse will do well.”

This means the world’s racing press will need to negotiate the Harbor Freeway if they want to have an early preview with Ellis and his Breeders’ Cup trio. Fear not, it will be a new experience for both. Ellis, 52, began training in 1980 and is thoroughly experienced in winning Grade 1 races. But he has run exactly one horse in a Breeders’ Cup event.

“I’m going to take a couple media courses to get a little more comfortable in front of the camera,” Ellis deadpanned. “Then maybe it won’t be so stressful.”