07/18/2006 11:00PM

Opener hotter than usual

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HENDERSON, Ky. - Those familiar Ellis Park hallmarks - oppressive heat and humidity and a lush soybean crop in the spacious infield - apparently never went anywhere, but most everything else regarding opening day of the 2006 summer meet carried a new twist.

The Wednesday opening of the 36-day meet, conducted in 90-plus degree temperatures and with a heat index exceeding 100, was the first racing card at Ellis since a November tornado led to millions of dollars in repairs and renovations.

And as if the innumerable new physical features weren't enough, the announcement from earlier this week that Ellis is being sold by Churchill Downs Inc. for an undisclosed price to Louisville, Ky., businessman Ron Geary had the buzz quotient at a level rarely seen at this normally subdued rural outpost.

Steve Sexton, the Churchill racetrack president whose tenure as president at Ellis will end when Geary closes on the track in September, and Brian Elmore, the new Ellis general manager, were busy early in the day, making sure all the loose ends had been secured. A few hours before first post, construction debris still littered the walkway joining the jockeys' room and paddock, just as other areas required last-minute attention.

Traffic jammed the parking entrances, fans lined up nearly 100 deep before the gates opened, and the Sky Terrace dining area sold out an hour before the first race. Track officials said attendance was 5,240, compared to 4,664 for opening day last year.

Before the races, Elmore delivered a short speech under a scorching sun following brief remarks from several local dignitaries, and a moment of silence was held for the 25 people who died in the tornado. A video celebrating Ellis Park's history was played on the new infield Jumbotron.

Meanwhile, Geary got caught in traffic and settled for a parking spot on the far south end of the grounds, far from the main entrance. A longtime Louisville resident who made a fortune in the health-care business after stints as an accountant, attorney, government official, and bible-college president, Geary recently entered the horse business as an owner but has long had an interest in racing as a fan and handicapper. In fact, he has qualified for the National Handicapping Champion-ship finals three times, including the 2007 tournament to be held in January in Las Vegas.

Geary has promised to be a "hands-on" owner who, like all racetrack owners in Kentucky, will lobby for legislative changes so as to permit alternative ontrack gambling. He and Churchill are off to a good start in their cooperative efforts to further the cause of Kentucky racing as a cohesive circuit: Both tracks will run simultaneously during the five-day week of July 4-8, 2007, complementing and promoting each other's programs. That agreement is for five years, said Sexton.

The first race on the Ellis opener, a $5,000 maiden claiming sprint, was won by King's Peace, the 9-2 fourth choice who outgamed favored Gin and Tea in a stretch-long drive. Ralph Martinez, the perennial leading trainer at Fairmount Park, was on hand to saddle the winner. Asked if he got an extra kick from winning the first race at a meet that many locals regard as special, Martinez said, "They're all good."