06/29/2017 9:46AM

Solid purse structure a big attraction at Ellis Park

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Summer officially began last week, but as far as the Kentucky racing community is concerned, summer really gets under way Saturday, when action moves from Churchill Downs to Ellis Park in the western part of the state.

The 31-day summer meet at the Henderson, Ky., track starts with a nine-race card that typifies the fare fans can expect on a regular basis: an allowance race, a couple of maiden special weights, and purses that are sufficiently high to keep many of the big-name trainers maintaining local strings while their better stock migrates to Saratoga.

For the second straight year, Ellis Park’s purses have been bolstered substantially by a $1.65 million supplement from Kentucky Downs and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund. That’s a major reason Ellis can offer maiden races worth up to $40,000 (including KTDF bonuses for registered Kentucky-breds), up nearly 100 percent from a decade ago.

“Our enhanced purses have resonated with horsemen, and we expect to keep building on the memorable 2016 season,” said Dan Bork, now in his 11th year as Ellis’s racing secretary.

Ellis starts with four straight days of racing Saturday through Tuesday before settling into a three-day-a-week schedule (Fridays through Sundays) until the traditional Labor Day (Sept. 4) finale. First post daily is 12:50 p.m. Central.

:: Get bonus PPs for Tuesday’s Ellis Park card with purchase of any other Tuesday PPs

The meet highlight, the Grade 3, $100,000 Groupie Doll Stakes, has been shifted from its traditional Saturday date to a Sunday, which not only is a very popular day with local fans but also averts a conflict in the simulcast market with the Arlington Million and a multiple-stakes day at Saratoga. The one-mile Groupie Doll will be run Aug. 13, along with the $50,000 Cliff Guilliams Memorial.

In all, six stakes are on the schedule, starting with the $50,000 Ellis Park Turf Stakes on July 8. The others are the $50,000 Don Bernhardt on July 22 and a pair of 2-year-old stakes that returned last year following a lengthy hiatus: the $75,000 Ellis Park Juvenile and $75,000 Ellis Park Debutante, both on Aug. 20.

The nominal feature for opening day is a $41,000, first-level allowance that figures to have Derby Champagne and Giant Payday as favorites in a field of 11 older horses, assuming the one-mile race stays on the grass as scheduled. A chance of thunderstorms is in the Saturday forecast, and if the race is taken off the turf, it will be run out of the clubhouse elbow chute on the main track.

The Ellis jockey colony will include many of the circuit’s top riders when they aren’t being called out of town for stakes engagements. That includes Corey Lanerie and Brian Hernandez Jr., who were one-two atop the standings at the Churchill Downs spring meet, and other fan favorites such as Calvin Borel, Robby Albarado, Jon Court, and Miguel Mena.

There is an emphasis on 2-year-old racing at Ellis Park, with maiden races on both dirt and turf. Last year, divisional standouts Not This Time, Lookin At Lee, and Daddys Lil Darling began their careers in Ellis maiden races, joining a litany of others who have done the same in recent seasons.

Jimmy McNerney is back for his third year as the Ellis race-caller, while television personality Joe Kristufek will provide handicapping analysis and interviews for the in-house simulcast feed for the first time.

Founded in 1922, Ellis is situated on a parcel of land that’s actually north of the Ohio River and serves as a border separating Kentucky from Indiana for much of its length. Louisville businessman Ron Geary bought Ellis in 2006 from Churchill Downs Inc. and remains active in its day-to-day operation.