08/18/2005 12:00AM

As purses sink, slots are seen as a life raft

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HENDERSON, Ky. - There it sits, like the elephant in the living room. Although Ellis Park will try to put its best foot forward Saturday when it unveils its first-ever Big Four Stakes program, the unavoidable fact is that this has been a very disappointing summer from a business standpoint.

The nadir came Aug. 5, when Ellis announced an across-the-board 15 percent decrease in purses for the second half of a 41-day meet that ends Sept. 5.

"Nobody does cartwheels when you have a purse cut like that," said Ellis general manager Paul Kuerzi. "Obviously it's an unfortunate situation, but it was something that had to be done."

The causes of the track's double-digit decrease in all-sources handle can be partly rationalized, from weather to field size to other lesser factors, but the overall impression is that something - anything - must be done to shake Ellis from what has become a years-long slump. Purses are no bigger now than they were seven or eight years ago, and Kuerzi, like virtually every other racetrack administrator in the non-slots state of Kentucky, knows of a simple solution: getting alternative gaming at racetracks.

"It's actually reaching that solution that's obviously been the problem," he said.

Among Kentucky's four major racetracks, Ellis and Turfway Park have been hit the hardest since the late-90's onset of riverboat casino gambling in neighboring states. Churchill Downs and Keeneland also have been affected, albeit to lesser degrees. Their well-established niches in the racing industry - Churchill with the Kentucky Derby, and Keeneland with lucrative horse sales - have helped them to avoid the increasingly desperate plights that Ellis and Turfway find themselves in.

Kuerzi said he sees light at the end of the proverbial tunnel because the racing industry is making substantial inroads with state legislators and the general public.

"Like any industry with a major initiative such as this, there's a learning curve," he said. "It looks like our industry will make a major push for getting slots at the racetracks when the 2006 General Assembly convenes in January. Fortunately, there now seems to be a willingness on the part of the lawmakers and the general public to listen to what we have to say."

In the meantime, Kuerzi and his staff are doing what they can to keep Ellis a viable operation.

"Since we cut the purses, I've been pleasantly surprised at how much our horsemen have been supporting us at the entry box," he said. "They're disappointed, as am I, but we have to fight on."

Latest promotion a bad call

In a concerted effort to better its product and extend its marketing arm, Ellis has tried several new things this year, including a return to a five-day race week (from six); the new Big Four Stakes Saturday, the multi-stakes concept that has been a success at other Churchill Downs-owned tracks; a wall-clock giveaway on Saturday, which officials expect to enhance the live gate; and even a Big Four Stakes post-draw luncheon that drew a smattering of local media on Thursday.

But one new idea went over like a lead balloon when Henry Lackey was made a guest race-caller Wednesday. Lackey, the mayor of Henderson and the owner of a local radio station, was sorely out of his element when he botched the call of the eighth race. Ontrack fans could be seen shaking their heads in disbelief, and broadcasters at Television Games Network openly expressed their dismay.

The premise of the guest caller was to "drive coverage" toward Saturday, according to Joshua Abner, a first-year track publicist who conceived the idea. Clearly, the desired effect was not attained.

The guest-caller concept was scheduled to continue Thursday with Chris Goodman, a local television sportscaster, and Friday with John Asher, vice president for racing communications at Churchill Downs.

Romans hopes for a rerun

When trainer Dale Romans won the Gardenia last year with Angela's Love, he was watching via simulcast at Saratoga, just minutes after winning the Grade 1 Whitney Handicap with Roses in May.

So when Halory Leigh returns from a nearly nine-month layoff Saturday in the Gardenia, Romans will try to re-create an identical stroke of luck while in the Saratoga stands.

"I'll be watching on the same TV," he said.

Halory Leigh was awesome last fall in winning the Churchill Distaff and the Falls City, but Romans wanted to give her time after those wins.

"Then," he said, "she got caught up in the quarantine situation," which affected most of the Romans stable during the strangles scare in February and March. "It's just taken me this much time to get her back. She hasn't had anything wrong. It's just been timing."

Halory Leigh has shown a fondness for Churchill and Keeneland but has never raced at Ellis.

"Who knows?" said Romans. "She might like Ellis better than any of them."