08/04/2004 11:00PM

Meet struggling for many reasons

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HENDERSON, Ky. - Seats are empty. Faces are long. Morale is suffering.

This is the Ellis Park of 2004, a place where summer jubilance seems a distant memory. A recent purse cut underscores the business struggles in which this 82-year-old track is mired, and predictions of more dire consequences are being whispered throughout the racetrack if something good doesn't happen in due course.

The effect of the 5 percent purse cut "certainly seems dire to most people," said Ellis general manager Paul Kuerzi. "But we didn't have much choice. After we had run three weeks, we projected that we were going to have a purse overpayment of $700,000 to $750,000 if we kept going the way we were. It's very unfortunate, but we had to do something."

Ellis management also canceled three stakes scheduled for later in the meet, then reversed that decision Wednesday by reinstating the races. Still, the net result has been a distinct aura of negativity, with horsemen and fans wondering where bad news will come from next.

The reasons for the downward spiral are plentiful. Gambling boats in neighboring Indiana and Illinois continue to eat away at Ellis, and an offtrack betting outlet in Evansville also has had a negative impact. The move from a five-day to a six-day race week has diluted the racing product; field size has averaged 8.4 so far this year, down from 9.4 in 2003.

Kuerzi said ontrack wagering and attendance are down only a few percentage points, but in-state wagering from outlets such as Louisville Trackside and Turfway Park are down by double digits, and out-of-state wagering also is down substantially.

In one damaging span of three days, Louisville Trackside, which also serves as the hub for other in-state wagering outlets, was rendered useless by a power outage caused by a storm. The resulting loss in handle is estimated by track officials to have cost the purse fund $150,000.

Ellis is owned by Churchill Downs Inc., which long has advocated alternative gaming for state racetracks as a major solution to these business woes. But political progress on that front continues to be hard to come by, and in the meantime, Ellis and Turfway in particular have struggled mightily.

Even with its marquee race, the $200,000 Gardenia Handicap, set for Saturday, the mood here is unmistakably somber.

"These are tough times in this industry, and certainly we're feeling them right here at Ellis Park," said Kuerzi. "I wish I had some good answers, but right now I don't, and I don't know who does."

New Dreams newly improved

Veteran trainer Ken McPeek said he is unable to determine whether a recent turnaround for New Dreams occurred because she switched from turf to dirt or because she now races with blinkers.

"Either way, it doesn't really matter," McPeek said this week from Miami. "She's turned to winning, and that's the important thing."

New Dreams will try to run her record on dirt to 3 for 3 when shipping in Saturday from Churchill Downs for the Gardenia Handicap. A 5-year-old Brazilian import owned by Estrela Energia Stable, New Dreams was soundly beaten in her first four U.S. starts, all on turf, but then won back-to-back dirt races at Churchill. The first of those was scheduled for turf but transferred to the main track because of weather.

"It was by accident that she even ran on the dirt," said McPeek. "It took her a while to come around, but once she did, she's really caught on. We've been waiting on this race in particular because we think it's a great spot for her."

McPeek won the Gardenia two years ago with Minister's Baby, giving the Mackin family's Lucky Seven Stable its biggest win in racing.

Private Horde has foot bruise

Private Horde is recovering from a foot bruise suffered when he finished fifth as the odds-on favorite in the July 4 Mountaineer State Handicap.

"He threw a shoe right after the start and ran without it the whole way, which I guess explains why he came back sore on the foot," said trainer Joe Cain.

Cain said that Private Horde is in light training at his private farm in southeastern Kentucky and that he hopes to have the horse ready to run in the Sept. 25 Marfa Stakes, a race the horse won last fall at Turfway Park.

Private Horde has won 10 races and nearly $565,000. He earned a lifetime high Beyer Speed Figure of 117 in winning last year's Vanderbilt at Saratoga.

Promotion is indeed challenging

Ellis is offering what it is calling a Million Dollar Challenge next Saturday, Aug. 14, but if anyone is going to win, they had better be very good and very lucky.

To win, a customer has to pick six straight winners with just one selection per race. As if that isn't tough enough, a winning entry then would be placed in one of 20 envelopes, and that envelope would have to be picked out of a raffle to win the $1 million.

In the unlikely event that there is more than one perfect pick six, the winners will be narrowed, by drawing, to just one entrant in the 1-in-20 envelope raffle. Although the odds of winning are preposterously higher than 3 in 100, Ellis management spent $30,000 to insure itself against a win.

* David Cassidy, the 70's teen idol who is a horse owner and big fan of racing, has been invited by Ellis management to give away the winning trophy for the Gardenia, but it is unclear whether Cassidy will be here Saturday to do so.

Cassidy is scheduled to perform at nearby Aztar Casino on Friday and Saturday night. Luke Kruytbosch, race caller and publicist at Ellis, sent Cassidy an e-mail on Thursday inquiring into the singer's availability for Saturday.