Ellis Park’s Growth Over Past 12 Years ‘Nothing Short Of Amazing’

The 30-date Thoroughbred meet at Kentucky’s Ellis Park runs July 1 through Labor Day, with racing Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, plus Wednesday July 4, Thursday July 5 and Monday Sept. 3. There is no racing Saturday, Sept. 1.
“This is the 12th year I’ve been here since we bought the track from Churchill Downs right after the tornado,” Ellis Park owner Ron Geary told the gathering of media, public officials, sponsors, season-ticket holders, vendors and others. “It was a struggle whether they were going to want to keep it open, and we worked something out. I’m so glad we did. It’s not been the easiest turnaround I’ve been involved with, but when you look at our purse money — $230,000 a day compared with $135,000 when we took it over — we’ve made a lot of progress. It hasn’t gone as fast as any of us want it to, but I’m very pleased where we are.”
The bucolic horse track on the sliver of Kentucky north of the Ohio River will be offering a record $230,000 a day in purses for its 30-date meet, up from $210,000 last year. The purse hikes are attributable to revenue from historical horse racing, the parimutuel terminals featuring electronic systems that allow betting on previously-run races.
Kentucky Downs and the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the group representing horse owners and trainers at both tracks, arranged the transfer of $2.9 million into Ellis Park’s purse account because of Kentucky Downs’ astronomical success with historical horse racing in the Nashville market.
Four stakes have been added at Ellis to bring the total to 10, with a quartet of $100,000 turf stakes forming Kentucky Downs Preview Day on Aug. 5. Also new is the $75,000 Ellis Park Derby for 3-year-olds at a mile.
The $100,000, Grade 3 Groupie Doll for fillies and mares at a mile will be Aug. 12, with the Ellis Park Derby on the undercard. The $75,000 Ellis Park Juvenile and $75,000 Ellis Park Debutante for 2-year-olds are scheduled for Aug. 19.
“I grew up in Nebraska,” said Media Day participant Tom Van Berg, who upon the death Dec. 27 of his father, Jack Van Berg, took over the Hall of Famer’s stable. “When they were talking about Ellis Park and the possibility of it not continuing (after the tornado), I saw Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha go under for the same reasons. Across the river, they got gaming, and now Ak-Sar-Ben is shuttered. Now this year, there’s a fight for the rest of the tracks in Nebraska to continue to race. It might be that the racing industry leaves the state as a whole.
“To see what Ellis Park has done in the last 12 years has been nothing short of amazing,” said Van Berg, who trained for nine years before leaving the profession to raise his sons, jumping back in last year to help his ailing dad. “Especially this year with the addition of stakes races, the purse structure and the inclusion of larger stables that normally would ship out of Kentucky this time of the year, it’s phenomenal. To come back into it this time, it’s exciting to see what everybody has done here.”
Buff Bradley — the trainer as well as the co-breeder and co-owner of Groupie Doll, the two-time female sprint champion for whom Ellis Park’s Grade 3 signature race is named — told the crowd that the resurgence of Ellis Park makes it possible for outfits to stay home in Kentucky for the summer.
“This is like my home anyhow, this track,” said Bradley, whose late father, former Kentucky state senator Fred Bradley, was from nearby Providence. “I’m glad I have owners who want to stay here in Kentucky and run at Ellis Park. It’s been made possible with the purse increase. In the last four or five years, it’s just really gotten good here. You see a lot of the top jockeys standing here and quite a few of the best trainers are keeping stables here. It’s going to be very competitive. Kentucky racing has moved by (the elevation) of Ellis Park.”
The 2-year-old racing again will be a focal point of the meet. At least 22 horses who raced at Ellis Park as 2-year-olds the past 20 years have gone on to win or place in Grade 1 stakes.
John Hancock, a third generation horse trainer and owner from Henderson, said he has some nice 2-year-olds that got sick this spring and weren’t able to have the success he usually enjoys at Keeneland‘s April meet. Those horses will be on full tilt for Ellis, he said, including a filly named Bivian B after Hancock’s mother who died last year.
“She’s the best 2-year-old I’ve ever hung a bridle on,” he said. “She could be the real deal.”
Hancock pointed to Chester Thomas, a two-time Ellis Park leading owner from Madisonville, and Evansville’s Mike Bruder as examples of local owners improving their stock.
“Steve Asmussen is coming with a couple of barns full. Brad Cox is coming with a couple of barns full,” Hancock said of the nationally prominent trainers who have accounted for the past three Ellis training titles. “But I don’t think it will be as easy for them. Local people … won’t be a pushover.”
“It takes a lot of luck to have the best horse on the day. It’s tough to win,” Thomas said. “There will be big-time barns here. But the local folks, don’t overlook them.”
Also at Media Day was Henderson product Jason Barkley, who began his training career last summer at Ellis Park.
“It’s nice to be there with your name on the program, doing your own thing,” said Barkley, the son of veteran Kentucky trainer Jeff Barkley. “The successes are great, and the failures are awful. You just learn from both and try to make the most of it.”
The favorite Ellis Park promotions are back, including the wiener dog races, restricted to Dachshunds, on Aug. 4, 11 and 25.
Other highlights:
Jockeys race aboard camels and ostriches on July 7.
Kids Days on July 15 and Sept. 2.
The Kentucky HBPA College Day, featuring drawings for laptops and $1,000 scholarships, on July 22.
Every Sunday after July 1 will be Value Days with deeply discounted draft beer, soda, hotdogs and more.
General admission and parking are free.

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