Local horsemen looking ahead to Ellis Park meeting

Kenny McPeek led Ellis Park trainers with five juvenile wins last summer. He plans to bring several 2-year-olds to the Henderson track again this year.
Kenny McPeek led Ellis Park trainers with five juvenile wins last summer. He plans to bring several 2-year-olds to the Henderson track again this year. AP

Though the start of its 30-date session is still a month away, Ellis Park is already drawing raves from Kentucky-based horsemen looking to take advantage of the enhanced stakes and overnight program on tap for the track known as “the Pea Patch.”

With enhanced purses for horsemen, the restoration of a 2-year-old stakes and continued player-focused emphasis, Ellis Park president Ron Geary expects the meet that runs July 2-Sept. 5 to be the strongest in more than 20 years.

Thanks to burgeoning business with its Instant Racing parimutuel games and a $1.35 million contribution by Kentucky Downs, Ellis Park’s races will offer purses averaging $210,000 a day for its 30-date summer meet, Geary said. That’s up from $155,000 a year ago at the 1  1/8 -mile Henderson track.

Maiden races for Kentucky-bred horses will have pots of $38,000 — up $9,000 from last year, while allowance races will range from $39,000 to $42,000, including the supplements from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund for horses born and sired in the commonwealth. The strength of the program is such that some notable operations are already making plans to reward such efforts with renewed support.

“Those numbers are going to make me seriously consider whether it’s worth going to Saratoga or Del Mar,” said Louisville-based trainer Dale Romans, whose two-time Grade I winner Brody’s Cause first raced at Ellis Park last season. “I just hope more people don’t start staying behind and it gets tougher to break a maiden at Ellis. I mean, Brody did get beat at Ellis.

“A lot of horses get beat in 2-year-old races and go on to be top horses. It’s the time of year for 2-year-olds to get started, seems the most productive. And it’s a good safe racetrack to get started on. With this kind of money, I’ll definitely leave more horses in Kentucky this summer.”

The Ellis Park stakes schedule is highlighted by the $100,000 Groupie Doll for fillies and mares at a mile. The Grade III stakes was renamed for the 2012-13 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint and two-time Eclipse Award champion who raced three times at the track, including victory in the 2011 stakes and third in 2013 when it was known as the Gardenia.

Also on that Aug. 6 card is the return of the $75,000 Ellis Park Juvenile, giving Kentucky a much-needed 2-year-old stakes in the summer. The 7-furlong Juvenile promises to be well-populated, given the strength of Ellis’ maiden races, which last year launched eventual Grade I Breeders’ Futurity and Blue Grass Stakes winner Brody’s Cause, Grade II winners Venus Valentine and Dothraki Queen, Grade III winner Mo Tom and Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks runner-up Dream Dance.

“I’m thrilled,” said trainer Kenny McPeek, whose five wins with 2-year-olds led the 2015 Ellis meet. “We’re going to point a bunch of young horses there. It’s right up our alley, and it gives us more motivation to keep these horses local.”

Added trainer Ron Moquett: “Ellis has always been a pet meet of mine. We love Ellis. Now that they’ve got the money working the right direction, it’s enough to make our owners run more horses there. I’ll leave some good horses here to try to run. The Pea Patch just got very interesting.”

Instant Racing wagering at Ellis set a record each of the past three months, including April’s $7.17 million, according to Kentucky Horse Racing Commission statistics.

As part of the tracks’ strengthening relationship, Kentucky Downs is marketing and distributing Ellis’ simulcast signal nationally. The all-grass track in Franklin, which pioneered pari-mutuel wagering on historical horse racing in the commonwealth, also is transferring $1.35 million to Ellis for purses to help build the circuit — an arrangement endorsed by the Kentucky division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the group representing the state’s owners and trainers.

When Churchill Downs balked at any overlapping days between its September meet and Kentucky Downs, Geary resolved the thorny situation by giving Sept. 3 — the Saturday before Labor Day — to Kentucky Downs for its opener. Ellis’ closing day is Sept. 5.

“We were trying to make it a win-win,” said Geary, whose minority partner in Ellis is Saratoga Harness Racing Inc. “And I think it did. I think it will work out really well and help the circuit be stronger during the summer and the fall.

“We’ll have one of the best meets we’ve ever had. We had almost 8.3 horses per race last year, and we think we’ll have an opportunity to improve on that this year. The momentum has been building for this for several months and now it’s looking like reality, which is extremely exciting.”

Geary added that the resources have also been put into enhancing the track surface, including putting down 2,000 tons of sand and clay this season on top of what they did two years earlier.

“The last several years we’ve worked hard to get the track in the best shape. And we’ve worked hard on getting our turf in top shape,” Geary said. “The horsemen like that their horses leave here in great shape. We’ve had some outstanding horses going on to national accomplishments after starting right here at little Ellis Park.”

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl

Ellis Park 2016 summer meet

Location: 3300 US-41, Henderson, Ky.

Dates: July 2-Sept. 5 (30 days of racing), Fridays through Sundays, plus Mondays July 4 and Sept. 5. No racing Saturday, Sept. 3.

Post time: 12:50 p.m. CDT

General admission: Free. Reserved seating in Sky Theatre and Clubhouse.

Parking: Free; valet available.

Multi-horse wager minimums: 10-cent superfecta; 50-cent trifecta, Pick 3, Pick 4, Pick 5; $1 exacta, Super High Five.

Stakes: July 9 — $50,000 Ellis Park Turf for fillies and mares 3 and older at 1 1/16 miles (turf). July 16 — $50,000 Don Bernhardt Memorial for 3-year-olds and older at 6 1/2 furlongs. Aug. 6 — $100,000, Grade III Groupie Doll for fillies and mares 3 and older at 1 mile; $75,000 Ellis Park Juvenile for 2-year-olds at 7 furlongs. Sept. 5 — $50,000 Cliff Guilliams Handicap for 3-year-olds and older at 1 1/16 miles (turf).