07/06/2003 11:00PM

Meet opens, bucking competition

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LOUISVILLE - Following a Churchill Downs meet is akin to succeeding John Wooden as coach of the UCLA basketball program. No matter how well you do, your accomplishments pale in comparison.

Yet a track must attempt to fill the void left by Churchill's closing, and that track is Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., which opens for its 80th meet on Wednesday with a 10-race card.

Compared with Churchill Downs, the racing at Ellis is blue collar. Many of the top Kentucky-based horses race at Saratoga or Arlington during the hot summer months, which leaves Ellis Park to focus primarily on claiming races and low- to mid-level allowances, with a few stakes thrown in the mix. Wednesday's opening-day card is a fair illustration, with four claiming races, two maiden claiming races, two allowances, one maiden special weight, and one starter allowance scheduled.

Although the quality is down from Churchill Downs, the racing should be competitive for this 41-day meet, which lasts through Labor Day, Sept. 1. Racing secretary Doug Bredar expects to offer as many as three turf races each day, and overnight purses should average approximately $180,000 per day. Counting boosts from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund, a financial incentive program for Kentucky-bred horses, the minimum purse for Ellis Park stakes has grown to $75,000.

"We've had an exceptionally strong meet at Churchill," said Bredar, who is also racing secretary at Churchill Downs. "When it's all said and done, I think we'll average 8.8 or 8.9 horses per race at Churchill. So we want to head over the Ellis and keep the momentum going."

Ellis Park faces challenges on the business front. Ontrack and overall handle dropped slightly last year, and in January Churchill Downs, which owns Ellis Park, put the track on sale after years of disappointing earnings. Six months later, Ellis remains on the market.

Competition for the gambling dollar has escalated, too. In February, Indiana Downs launched an offtrack betting parlor in nearby Evansville, Ind., and off-season simulcast attendance at Ellis Park has been down by approximately 20 percent, Ellis Park general manager Paul Kuerzi said.

How the Evansville parlor affects live racing business at Ellis Park remains to be seen.

Ellis has a number of promotions planned, including an opening-day T-shirt giveaway and two bobblehead giveaways later in the meet. The lone graded race, the Grade 3, $200,000, Gardenia Stakes will be run Aug. 9.