07/10/2005 11:00PM

It's now Pea Patch season

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There's a simple way to tell summer has hit full stride in Kentucky: Thoroughbred action has moved two hours west from Churchill Downs to Ellis Park, where the living is easier and the racing takes on a different look.

A 41-day meet begins Wednesday at Ellis in Henderson, Ky., and will continue through its traditional conclusion on Labor Day, Sept. 5. The highlight of the meet will come Aug. 20, when the newly reconfigured Big Four Stakes Saturday, featuring the Grade 3 Gardenia Stakes, will be held for the first time.

Otherwise, the standard fare at Ellis is a less glamorous brand than what fans have come to expect at the state's two major tracks, Churchill and Keeneland. Three allowance races are on the 10-race opening-day card at Ellis, but that seems something of an aberration since the more typical weekday cards will consist of maybe just one allowance.

The featured ninth race, a $26,600 second-level allowance at a mile on turf, drew a field of 14, although only 10 can start. Slammin' Sam and Freedom Counts look like prime contenders, although if Broke Sharply, who has never raced on grass, makes a smooth transition from dirt, he could prove tough, too.

The other two allowances, each worth $23,800, are carded as the fourth and seventh races.

This 82nd Ellis meet marks the first for 10-cent superfectas, a trend that is sweeping the country. Otherwise, the track offers a normal betting menu, with perhaps one minor exception being the availability of daily doubles for $1.

Purses at Ellis, which has been owned since April 1998 by Churchill Downs Inc., will average about $140,000, said racing secretary Doug Bredar. The caliber and number of races will vary day to day, with nine races on Wednesdays and Thursdays, 10 on Fridays, and 11 on Saturdays and Sundays. The five-day race week marks a cutback from last year, when six-day weeks tended to yield a diluted racing product.

Paul Kuerzi, a 40-year racetrack veteran, is in his seventh year as general manager at Ellis, while Luke Kruytbosch doubles as director of media relations and race-caller.

"I think we're all looking forward to another exciting summer at 'The Pea Patch,' " said Kruytbosch, invoking the oft-used nickname for Ellis.