07/28/2011 11:39AM

Q&A: Ron Geary

Wendy Steinhaus Fotographie

Ron Geary has owned Ellis Park since he purchased the western Kentucky track from Churchill Downs Inc. in 2006. A Louisville businessman who made a fortune in the health-care industry, Geary, 64, has been a life-long racing fan and handicapper. He earned $150,000 for finishing second in January in the 2011 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas. Later this year or early in 2012, Ellis is expected to install about 200 Instant Racing machines, which determine winners on the basis of past races and have a parimutuel-style payout.

You closely identify with horseplayers as someone who enjoys the challenges of trying to pick winners. How does that help you in running a racetrack?
When we acquired Ellis Park, we immediately dedicated ourselves to being the most player-focused track possible because we believe that handle generated by our customers is all-important to our existence as a racetrack. By focusing on the horseplayer, we feel that Ellis will be valued by our customers. This has been successful for us thus far in that we were ranked seventh out of 67 tracks across the continent in the latest Horseplayers Associations of North America survey.

While Ellis is in session, do you spend much time handicapping the races? What are your wagering habits like?
I did conduct one handicapping seminar as a guest at one of our regular Saturday morning sessions, and much to my delight, I was successful in picking 6 of 6 winners that morning! I will be doing another session on Sept. 3. In effect, though, with all the administrative duties we have around here during the meet, I put my handicapping substantially on the back-burner until the fall, although I am competing in the Del Mar Invitational handicapping tournament this weekend (July 30-31).

Aside from the big check you cashed earlier this year from the NHC, what are some of your other memorable scores in racing, either in contests or through the mutuel windows?
My biggest wins by far have come in the handicapping contests. The first contest I entered was in the [Bally’s] Moolah contest in 2004. I came in second. My next six years, I qualified for the finals at Turf Paradise, the NHC online contest, the Canterbury Breeders’ Cup, the Canterbury Winter Fest, the Louisiana Downs pick-four contest, and then last year at Fairplex. The runner-up finish in the finals last winter made me the most by far. I finished 17th and 19th in some of my other appearances in the finals. I won about $30,000 in the Canterbury Breeders’ Cup contest.

Do you favor vertical or horizontal wagers?
My preference is to bet win, place, and show, sprinkling in some exacta and trifecta boxes as the situation dictates. I very seldom pursue the horizontal wagers, the pick three, four, five, or six.

In 2007, you introduced a pick four with a 4 percent takeout but scrapped it after one meet. Clearly, takeout is a critical function of handle, but what is the magic solution in that regard?
The racing industry needs to try to find a way to lower the takeout rates so as to be more competitive, but the current economic stress on the industry is making this quite difficult. I am very excited about the possibility of introducing a new bet next year that I think will be very well received. If Ellis is allowed to operate Instant Racing machines in the near future, then we do intend to roll out the new bet next year. I can’t really reveal all the details quite yet.

You have been outspoken in pushing for alternative gaming at Kentucky tracks and threatened to close Ellis on two occasions. Without gaming for the long term, will Ellis and Turfway Park both ultimately fail?
For at least the last five years, probably longer, Kentucky racetracks have been operating on an unlevel playing field. Tracks such as Ellis, Turfway, and Kentucky Downs are at a distinct disadvantage with tracks in states such as Indiana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, New York, Louisiana, and Florida, just to name a few, because obviously these other states have alternative gaming that permits them to offer superior purses. Horses are leaving Kentucky, and our signature industry is fading away before our very eyes! The availability of Instant Racing machines will allow us to regain some of our purse funds, but that will provide only temporary, modest relief. Clearly, long-term solutions include allowing Kentucky tracks to be competitive with other states through the passage of alternative-gaming legislation.

You have owned a small stable of racehorses for six years. What is the extent of your involvement and your ambitions as a horse owner?
My son Mark, who also is in the administration here at Ellis, and I always have desired to get a horse in the Kentucky Derby or Kentucky Oaks. Doesn’t everyone dream of such a happening? We have bought some 2-year-olds in training and then raced them, and now we have a small broodmare operation. We both love our pursuit of the dream.

If somebody wanted to take a road trip to Ellis, tell us a thing or two that they’d enjoy upon arriving at their destination, maybe something a little outside the norm.
Ellis Park is like a charming country fair that celebrates its rich history of 88 years of racing with a laid-back, enjoyable experience during our live meet from July Fourth through Labor Day weekend. Ellis has tried to be a family-friendly track with camel and ostrich races, weiner-dog races, and family dollar days every Sunday.