07/09/2001 12:00AM

Summer racing in its purest form

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Summer officially began June 21. But for ardent followers of the Kentucky racing circuit, summer gets its true start when action moves to Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., where a 41-day meet commences Wednesday.

A $31,500 allowance race, which attracted six older horses at six furlongs, is the feature of a 10-race opener. First post is 12:40 p.m. Central.

As usual, the highlight of the meet is the track's only graded race, the Grade 3 $200,000 Gardenia Stakes for older fillies and mares. Because of a scheduling change, the Gardenia will be run Aug. 11, two weeks earlier than what had been its customary date.

But while some tracks are known for their signature races, that generally is not the case with James C. Ellis Park, which was known until 1955 as Dade Park. The dominant features of Ellis are summer racing at its purest: sun, heat, cold drinks, simple pleasures. Local patrons long have taken pride in the country-fair atmosphere that Ellis provides.

"People love to come to Ellis to enjoy themselves, to sit back and enjoy the races during the dog days of summer," said Luke Kruytbosch, who doubles as race-caller and publicity director at Ellis. "For people around here, this is the definition of summer - a day at the races at good old Ellis Park."

While the quality of racing at Ellis once was substandard, that school of thought has been considerably lessened since the track was purchased by Churchill Downs Inc. in 1998. With Paul Kuerzi serving as Churchill's on-site point man in the role of general manager, distribution of the Ellis simulcast signal has increased significantly in recent years, allowing for respectable purse levels and a solid brand of racing.

Horsemen of national repute are back at Ellis Park this summer, with Jon Court and Calvin Borel leading the jockey colony, and Bernie Flint and David Vance ranking among the top trainers.

In the opening-day feature, He Be Irish appears to be the horse to beat for trainer Rick Hiles. Although winless in his last seven starts, He Be Irish has been facing very tough competition this year, and he figures to be prominently spotted throughout after drawing the rail with Court aboard. General Express, Lead Em Home, and Outside the War should be the main challengers.

One other allowance race, a $27,200 turf event, also is carded for opening day.