06/30/2016 9:46AM

Purses up sharply for Ellis Park meet


Ellis Park opens its annual summer meet on Saturday with hefty purse increases, a strong jockey colony, and the addition of a stakes race to the 2-year-old program.

The Henderson, Ky., track, affectionately known as the “Pea Patch,” races through Sept. 5 on a Friday-through-Sunday schedule. There will be holiday Monday racing on July 4 and Sept. 5 and no racing on Saturday, Sept. 3. Both Ellis Park and Churchill Downs race on Saturday, the final day of the Churchill meet.

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Field size at Ellis averaged more than eight horses in 2015, and racing secretary Dan Bork may again have a lot to work with this summer. Bolstered by revenue from Instant Racing gambling machines and a $1.35 million contribution from Kentucky Downs, daily purses at Ellis will average $210,000, up from $155,000 in 2015.

Maiden races will be offered at $38,000, compared to $32,000 at both Arlington Park and Indiana Grand, which often compete for local horses. First-level allowance races are at $39,000, compared to $34,000 at Indiana and $33,000 at Arlington, and second-level allowances are at $40,000, compared to $36,000 at Indiana and $34,000 at Arlington. Kentucky-bred horses in maiden and allowance races also benefit from Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund purse supplements.

“We’ve been working with [track president] Ron Geary for years trying to get Ellis back upon its feet,” said trainer Rick Hiles, president of the Kentucky division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “We’ve got the purse structure up for the summer. With purses being a little better than Indiana, maybe all the Kentucky boys here will choose to go to Ellis Park and run with Mr. Geary. And maybe even some of the guys who venture out of here to run at Saratoga will leave some horses here. He’s got a good racing surface, and people enjoy going there. Everything is on a positive note at Ellis Park. I think it will be his best meet ever down there.”

The five stakes on the schedule are topped by the Grade 3, $100,000 Groupie Doll Stakes, for fillies and mares at a mile Aug. 6. On the same card will be the resurrected $75,000 Ellis Park Juvenile, which provides a summer target at a track that has unveiled several top juveniles in recent years.

Horses to have competed in maiden races at Ellis include 2014 Preakness Stakes runner-up Ride On Curlin; graded stakes winner Medal Count, third in the 2014 Belmont Stakes; Keen Ice, who defeated American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers Stakes; Grade 1 winners Brody’s Cause and Rosalind; and Mo Tom, the recent winner of the Ohio Derby.

“It’s the time of year for 2-year-olds to get started,” said Dale Romans, the trainer of Brody’s Cause, Keen Ice, and Medal Count. “And it’s a good, safe racetrack to get started on. With this kind of money, I’ll definitely leave more horses in Kentucky this summer.”

The stakes schedule also includes the $50,000 Ellis Park Turf on July 9, the $50,000 Don Bernhardt Memorial on July 16, and the $50,000 Cliff Guilliams Handicap on Sept. 5.

With the exception of Julien Leparoux and Florent Geroux, who will be based at Saratoga, most Churchill Downs jockeys will shift their tack to Ellis this summer, led by Corey Lanerie, who is poised to lock up his 11th Churchill Downs meet title. Lanerie, who was based at Saratoga the last two summers, is fewer than 20 wins away from 4,000 for his career and could reach that milestone in Kentucky this summer.

The local colony is also expected to include last year’s leading rider, Didiel Osorio, as well as six-time Ellis leading rider Jon Court, Robby Albarado, Brian Hernandez Jr., Francisco Torres, Jesus Castanon, Miguel Mena, Marcelino Pedroza, Joe Rocco Jr., Channing Hill, and Chris Landeros. James Graham will ride at Ellis regularly for the first time.

“It’s an extension of the Churchill Downs jockey colony,” Court said. “The purses are going to be better, and you’ll see a stronger, deeper level of talent this season. You’re going to have a whole list of Grade 1-proven riders. That’s going to bring a better product to the public.”

Some new faces join the team at Ellis this year, as Megan Devine has been hired as a paddock commentator, providing pre-race selections and conducting post-race interviews, and Jennie Rees, the Eclipse Award-winning former racing writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal, comes on board as a part-time communications consultant. Announcer Jimmy McNerney returns for his second season calling Ellis races.