Ellis Park Opens Summer Meet To Excited Crowds In Stands, Familiar Names In Winner’s Circle

The RUNHAPPY Meet at Ellis Park kicked off Sunday before an enthusiastic crowd welcoming back horse racing in the Tri-State area with fans in the stands for the first time since 2019. COVID protocols forced last summer’s meet to be held only before socially-distanced reserved seating. Ellis Park is located in Henderson, Ky.

“Very encouraged,” said Ellis Park General Manager Jeff Inman. “It’s been a really busy day for our opening day. We got through everything well, we’e executed well. Few little glitches, but we’re going to be able to fix them quickly. The team is excited and happy to see the crowds. The crowds are happy. We’ve got kids. We’ve got cheering. We’ve got the thunder of the horses. We’re a racetrack again!”

Much of the pre-meet conversation centered on all the high-profile trainers who will have horses stabled at Ellis Park this summer because of the closure of Churchill Downs for off-season training. But when the Pea Patch began its 99th season, local horsemen were the fastest out of the gate.

Bonnie Pittman of Evansville was the winning owner-trainer as Shape of You ($31.20 to win) captured the first race, a starter-allowance with an optional $10,000 claiming price, under Angel Rodriguez. Pittman predicted that Eric Foster of the Owensboro area would follow suit in the second. And, as it turned out, also the third race.

Sir Acealot ($8.40), owned by Joseph A. and Hugh D. Scates, captured the second race for $16,000 maiden-claimers by 5 1/2 lengths, to give DeShawn Parker his first Ellis Park victory in a 5,870-win career. Foster came right back with the $10,000 claimer Can’tbetemall ($4.80) and jockey Chris Landeros winning for the Scateses, Foster Family Racing and R.K. Eckrich Racing. Both races attracted the usual jammed-packed winner’s circle whenever Foster wins a race.

“It’s awesome, just awesome,” Pittman said. “It’s great to see everybody back in the stands again, and we’re ready to rock and roll. We’ve all been out here training the last few months, and I think we’re ready to go.”

“We move in early and get them ready,” Foster said after the second race. “That’s why I like to win here so much because family and friends get to come who don’t always get to go to the races. It makes it that much better.”

Parker, the leading rider at Indiana Grand last year, plans to ride regularly at Ellis Park for the first time because the two tracks don’t overlap. Ellis runs Fridays through Sundays and Indiana Grand Mondays through Thursdays.

“We finally got it done,” Parker said of his first Ellis victory, though in fairness he hadn’t ridden much before at the track. “It feels good. Nice crowd, nice place, everything.”

“You’re kidding,” Foster said when told it was Parker’s first victory at the Pea Patch. “He’s been everywhere and done everything. He’s awesome.”

Foster said he doesn’t view it as competition between the local trainers and those coming in from Louisville and Lexington.

“I look up to so many of them,” he said. “I hope they would all be behind us. Any time the guys around here need advice, they’ll give it to you.” But, he added, “It is nice for me and Bonnie to get the 1-2.”

After he won again, Foster said, “It’s a good day. I tell you what, I already was so happy for Bonnie, and to win two more, it’s a blessing. You’ve got to enjoy every win, and to do it twice in a row.”

Inman was delighted to see Ellis’ local horsemen do so well. “Really, it’s the local guys who are always here for us,” he said, adding in reference to Churchill Downs’ meet ending Saturday, “The big guys are here, but they’re coming in right now. I think Brad Cox has had a few horses come in. But we’re really not expecting the majority of our top-flight trainers to be here until the 4th or 5th of July.”

Brad Cox, who last summer earned his third Ellis Park training title in a tie with Kenny McPeek, is the reigning Eclipse Award winner as North America’s outstanding trainer and recently won his first Triple Crown race with 2-year-old champion Essential Quality in the Belmont Stakes.

Cox made his presence known early on Sunday, taking the fourth race, an entry-level allowance event for 3-year-olds, with heavily favored Swill and jockey Florent Geroux. Swill, racing as a gelding for the first time, came in off a six-month layoff since finishing fourth in Aqueduct’s Jerome Stakes. He dominated the seven-furlong race Sunday, winning by seven lengths over Espionage in a field that scratched down to four horses. Swill, a son of Munnings, is owned by Louisville’s Rick Kueber and the Ten Strike Racing partnership headed by Marshall Gramm, professor and chair of the economics department at Rhodes College in Memphis.

Geroux and Cox teamed to win the fifth as well with Arkansas timber man John Ed Anthony’s 4-year-old gelding Pine Knoll winning a maiden race on his eighth attempt, this race at 1 1/16 miles on turf. Pine Knoll went virtually wire-to-wire, holding off the late-running Chad Brown-trained first-time starter Orchestration by 1 1/2 lengths.

The first 2-year-old race of the meet was won by Frank Fletcher’s filly J L’s Rockette, with 2019 meet-titlist James Graham aboard for Bill Mott, one of four Hall of Fame trainers who will have a sizable division of horses stabled at the track. The other Hall of Famers are Steve Asmussen, Mark Casse, and legendary D. Wayne Lukas, who is stabled at Ellis for the first time.

J L’s Rockette was a first-time starter by Spendthrift Farm‘s super-sire Into Mischief. J L’s Rockette battled for the lead, opened up a four-length lead with an eighth-mile to go in the five-furlong race, and then held off the on-coming Tap N Glo, who came up just short of giving Cox and Geroux their third winner of the day.

Mott is stabled at Ellis Park for the first time, with those horses overseen by his Churchill Downs assistant, Kenny McCarthy.

“That was fantastic,” McCarthy said of J L’s Rockette, adding cheerfully, “He’s owned by Mr. Frank Fletcher, and this horse is named after his wife and his daughter. He said, ‘So you better win!’”

Thomas Haughey’s PTK LLC stable was last year’s leading owner with six wins. His family’s stable took a step toward defending that title by taking the seventh race, a $52,000 one-mile turf allowance, with the appropriately named Continuation. Joe Rocco Jr. was aboard for trainer Dane Kobiskie.

Continuation needed nine attempts before he won a Churchill Downs’ maiden race but now has won two in a row. The 4-year-old son of Munnings made the most of his turf debut, stalking early leader Wentru before taking over through the stretch for a 2 3/4-length victory in the field of nine.

“I’m very thankful for the opportunity,” Rocco said. “Dane does a great job. All of his horses feel like they’re ready to run when they bring them over to the races.”

Rocco is among those planning to ride two tracks full-time this summer. The twist is that he won’t be just making the three-hour trek from Indiana Grand but from Colonial Downs, 717 miles away in New Kent, Va. Colonial Downs races Monday through Wednesday, July 19 through Sept. 1.

“I bought an RV and am going to drive it there and stay in it,” Rocco said. “I’ll just fly from Richmond to Evansville. There’s no direct flights. I have to go through Atlanta, but I’ll put on a lot of frequent flier miles this summer.”

And he’s doing this because?

“Why not?” said Rocco, who turns 40 on July 19. “The dark days don’t conflict with each other. Mike Tomlinson, I ride a lot of horses for him and he’s taking his whole barn there. So are a lot of other people from Kentucky… And I want to come back and keep the business I’ve got here as well as much as we can.”

Joe Talamo, the Eclipse Award winner in 2007 as North America’s outstanding apprentice jockey, relocated to Kentucky from California last year and won his first riding title in the commonwealth at Ellis Park. This year has presented some challenges as Talamo missed part of the Oaklawn Park meet after contracting COVID. But the 31-year-old jockey made a good start to his title defense by taking the opening-day finale on Michael Cannon’s There Goes Harvard, 1 1 1/4-length winner over Tango Tango Tango in the 1 1/16-mile maiden race on turf. There Goes Harvard is trained by California-based Michael McCarthy, who has started a Kentucky division.

“It feels great,” said the unfailingly cheerful Talamo. “I’m grateful for the opportunity that Michael McCarthy gave me. I know him pretty well from back in California. He’s a really good horseman, really good trainer. Yeah, it’s great to be back. I love the vibe out here with fans. Last year it was a little different; only the owners and trainers could be out here. So it’s definitely nice to see it back to normal. Fans interacting and stuff, it’s really nice.”

Ellis Park runs through Sept. 4, racing Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays along with Thursday, July 1.

The post Ellis Park Opens Summer Meet To Excited Crowds In Stands, Familiar Names In Winner’s Circle appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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