07/08/2002 12:00AM

A place to step back in time


The soybeans in the infield, say Ellis Park general manager Paul Kuerzi, "have been a little slow to come around."

Fortunately for the thousands of horseplayers who will partake of Ellis Park this summer, it shouldn't take nearly as long for the brand of racing at the 2002 summer meet to be recognized as solid and competitive.

The 79th meet in Ellis history begins Wednesday with a 10-race card, led by a $28,280 allowance for 3-year-olds and up. The program is the first of 41 that will be run through closing day, Sept. 2.

Kuerzi, who was been the top on-site official at Ellis since shortly after Churchill Downs Inc. bought the Henderson, Ky., track in April 1998, said he and his staff "are very excited about this meet. Everything really is pointing up."

A day at the races at Ellis Park, which is located hard by the Ohio River just south of Evansville, Ind., is something of a throwback to a bygone era. With the soybeans long having served as a symbol of the agricultural heritage of the region, there is an unmistakable laid-back, county-fair atmosphere to the place.

Ellis management made some $500,000 worth of improvements since last year. Among the new features are more than 50 additional televisions; new seating throughout the facility; added security systems; and major renovations in the barn area.

"Everything we've done is to accommodate fans playing the races," said Kuerzi. "We're putting our money back into the facility."

The highlight of the meet is the $200,000 Gardenia Stakes, a Grade 3 race for fillies and mares on Aug. 10. The first stakes of the meet, the $100,000 HBPA Handicap on Saturday, serves as a prep for the Gardenia.

Jon Court, who is going for an unprecedented fifth straight Ellis riding title, heads quite possibly the strongest jockey colony in track history. Other everyday riders will include Calvin Borel, Lonnie Meche, Tony D'Amico, Jimmy Lopez, Willie Martinez, and apprentice Valerie Nagle.

Bernie Flint, who has won or tied for 10 previous training titles at Ellis, will have another strong contingent of runners and is the logical favorite to be leading trainer again. "We should be in the thick of it," said Flint.

The opening-day feature, a 1 1/8-mile entry-level allowance, drew a field of 10. Wagoneer, Bubba's Colors, and Soldiers Fortune appear to be the top contenders.