07/16/2006 11:00PM

'New and improved' for opener


HENDERSON, Ky. - The damage could not have been much worse, but at least the timing wasn't bad. The tornado that tore through this region of western Kentucky and southwestern Indiana on Nov. 6 took its heaviest toll just three miles north of Ellis Park, killing 20 people in one trailer park alone and inflicting hundreds of millions of dollars in property loss throughout the area.

Fortunately for Ellis Park, which has been a summer haven for Kentucky racing fans since 1922, there was ample time to assess what had transpired and how to proceed. After lengthy deliberation, officials at the track's parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., decided a 2006 meet was in order, despite the tremendous amount of time and money required to rebuild and despite the pre-existing business woes that long have dogged Ellis.

"Probably the most important thing was we continued to have a feeling that there's a place on the Kentucky circuit for Ellis Park," said Steve Sexton, president of both Churchill racetrack and Ellis. "It fills a valuable niche in the year-round circuit."

This will be the last meeting at Ellis Park for Churchill, which on Monday announced an agreement to sell the track to Ron Geary, a retired Louisville, Ky., businessman. Geary will manage the track for the meeting.

The obstacles at Ellis during the last eight-plus months were substantial. Brian Elmore, who became the Ellis general manager in January after 10 years in management at Churchill simulcast properties in Indiana, said efforts by contractors and track staff have resulted in a makeover that racing fans will be pleasantly surprised to see when a 36-day meet begins Wednesday.

"A lot of companies use the slogan 'new and improved,' " said Elmore. "But if it ever truly applied, it's to Ellis Park. After the cleanup was finished around the first of February, we've had anywhere from 30 to 80 workers here on any given day, seven days a week, getting the place rebuilt. All the blood, sweat, and tears will be apparent to everyone on opening day."

An exhaustive list of renovations, replacements, and new features - virtually all of which were funded by "several million dollars" in insurance money, said Sexton - includes barns, dormitories, racing office, jockeys' room, paddock, infield Jumbotron, toteboard, track railings, and track surface.

"The work that has gone on here has been nothing short of phenomenal," said Elmore.

Despite the makeover, the track still offers a purse structure that is unappealing to many horsemen who otherwise patronize richer meets at Churchill or Keeneland. Ellis simply cannot afford to offer bigger purses, due in no small part to the ferocious competition for the local gambling dollar from Casino Aztar, which opened about a mile from the track on Dec. 17, 1996.

"Their presence is an ongoing business concern for us," said Sexton.

Daily purses will be about $151,000, according to racing secretary Doug Bredar.

"It's honest, hard-knocking, solid racing," said Bredar. "Last year we averaged just above 8.0 horses per field, and in a perfect world I'd like to get that up to 8.5. We're going to be able to use the turf quite a bit, which is good. I think we're going to have a good meet."

As usual, the meet will be highlighted by the only graded race of the meet, the Grade 3, $150,000 Gardenia Stakes. The Gardenia is the anchor of the track's Big Four Stakes Day on Aug. 5, a day that also includes three $50,000 races: the Regaey Island, the Fisher Debutante, and the Ellis Juvenile.

The opening-day feature, the ninth of 10 races, is a $22,000 allowance race at a mile on turf. The first stakes comes Saturday with the $50,000 HBPA Handicap.

Sexton, who will travel from Louisville to be among the crowd at Ellis on Wednesday, said the amount of effort that has gone into the Ellis reopening cannot be understated.

"There is a considerable amount of anticipation from both the racing community and the local community," he said.

At a glance

RACING SCHEDULE: Wednesday through Sept. 4 (36 days); dark Mondays and Tuesdays except closing day.

POST TIME: 12:40 p.m. Central daily.

ADMISSIONS:General, $2; clubhouse, $2 additional.

PARKING: General, free; valet, $4.

DAILY PURSES: About $151,000 per day.

HIGHLIGHTS: 10 stakes, including Big Four Stakes Day on Aug. 5, led by the Grade 3, $150,000 Gardenia Stakes.

LOCATION: 3300 U.S. Hwy. North in Henderson, Ky.

PHONE: (812) 425-1456 or (800) 333-8110.

INTERNET: www.ellisparkracing.com.