07/02/2008 12:00AM

Murky forecast for new meet

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When one of the biggest crowds of the 44-day meet gathers Friday for the opening-day program at Ellis Park, the festive atmosphere might well conceal the troubles enveloping the Henderson, Ky., track.

The Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association was scheduled to respond Wednesday to an injunction filed by Ellis owner Ron Geary in an Owensboro, Ky., court the previous evening. Geary is seeking to allow patrons to bet on Ellis races through account wagering systems, including such major networks as XpressBet and Twinspires, while the HBPA has been holding out while seeking a higher share of revenues.

Horsemen and management at Churchill Downs Inc. have remained stalemated for months on the same issue, and Geary has said he is gravely concerned that the loss of account-wagering revenue would hurt Ellis Park.

Furthermore, Ellis has been embroiled for months in a labor dispute with a local union representing longtime mutuel clerks, who have picketed regularly since Jan. 1 just outside the main racetrack entrance. The clerks' strike and its accompanying rancor have become more visible as the onset of the live meet has approached.

Add to this mix the fact that efforts to legalize slots at Kentucky racetracks failed again earlier this year - Geary long has conceded that the hope of obtaining alternative gaming was a major factor in his purchase of Ellis from Churchill in September 2006 - and that Indiana Downs and Hoosier Park will compete during much of the same summer period as Ellis while offering far bigger purses in 2009, and the result is a bleak long-term outlook for the track.

"We are in a real struggle here," said Mike Bruder, an official with the local division of the HBPA.

In addition, Ellis Park has discontinued its one-year experiment with reducing takeout on its pick four to 4 percent. The wager will be offered this season at the normal takeout rate of 22 percent.

Phone calls to Geary went unreturned Tuesday and Wednesday.

Opening day is always a mark-your-calendar occasion for racing fans in the tri-state area (Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois) in which Ellis has been located since 1922 - especially when the track opens on the Fourth of July. Although only 340 horses were stabled on the Ellis backstretch as of Wednesday, a 10-race opener was filled by 78 horses. More horses were expected to arrive after Indiana Downs closes its meet this weekend.

There is no stakes race during the opening three-day weekend (Friday to Sunday) that overlaps with the end of the Churchill spring meet; the first of 11 stakes will be the $50,000 Audubon Oaks on July 12. The meet highlight, as usual, will be the only graded race of the meet, the Grade 3, $150,000 Gardenia Stakes on Aug. 16.

The opening-day program includes back-to-back allowances, the eighth and ninth races, but probably the race with the most intrigue is the fifth, a starter-allowance with a $9,300 purse. That's because Raving Rocket will go for his 12th straight victory when facing five opponents in the six-furlong race.