07/08/2009 11:00PM

Trimmed Ellis Park meet gets going

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There is no way to sugarcoat the disturbing undertones of the 2009 race meet at Ellis Park. Owner Ron Geary insists the 23-day meet that begins Saturday at the Henderson, Ky., track will be the last in the foreseeable future, the victim of grim economic reality.

Geary, the Louisville businessman who bought the 77-year-old track from Churchill Downs for what was widely reported as a minimal sum in 2006, has said repeatedly in recent months that Ellis is no longer viable without the sort of financial relief that could be provided by alternative gaming at Kentucky racetracks. And with the state legislature having once again rebuffed the racing industry, Ellis appears to be the first state track on the chopping block, with Geary saying that only a creative miracle would allow him to reopen the track in 2010.

Those dismal prospects surely will lend something of a funereal aura to a meet that runs through Labor Day, Sept. 7, although there is a silver lining in the clouds. By eliminating just more than half of the originally requested schedule of 48 racing days, Ellis appears to have solved one of its biggest problems of recent years: chronic short fields.

A total of 112 horses, including also-eligibles, are on the overnight sheet for the nine-race opening-day card. This bonanza apparently is partly because Ellis will race far more sparingly than in previous seasons, with four-day race weeks (Thursdays through Sundays) scheduled through the end of this month, then just Saturdays and Sundays into August and September (plus Labor Day). Geary is holding out the possibility of racing on Fridays during that latter part of the meet, depending on how business fares in the first few weeks.

We ve cut the days and the number of races, which in turn should allow us to keep the purses at a nice level and to run more grass races, which are always popular with horsemen, said the track racing secretary, Dan Bork. We ll only have about 400 horses on the grounds, so we re going to be depending on 70 to 80 percent ship-ins to fill our cards. Entries for opening day were encouraging, and hopefully we can keep that trend up. If fans in the simulcast market see how we ve got these big fields, I m sure that will help business.

Unfortunately for horsemen seeking to run in bigger-money races, the stakes schedule has been pared to the bone. Only four stakes are on tap: three $50,000 races, and the traditional meet highlight, the $150,000 Gardenia Stakes on Aug. 15. That means races such as the James C. Ellis Juvenile, the Anna M. Fisher Debutante, and the Tri-State Handicap have gone by the wayside.

We had to use that purse money for overnight races, said Bork.

The opening-day feature is one of five grass races on the card, a $26,000 entry-level sprint for 3-year-olds and upward. It goes as the eighth race.

Ellis regularly will offer promotions that should draw a good amount of interest, such as on opening day, when 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide will be shipped in from his retirement home at the Kentucky Horse Park to be on hand. Funny Cide will be in the paddock before the first race, and between the fourth and fifth races.

Other promotions include a laptop computer giveaway this Sunday; an autograph session with two-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel on July 19; and the annual college scholarship raffle on Aug. 30.

General parking has always been free at Ellis, but this year, Geary is giving away the gate, too, by offering free admission.

First post daily is 12:10 p.m. Central, a half-hour earlier than in recent years.