Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Once, and forever, Ellis

With nearly 90 years of horse racing history on the line -- and, in no small measure, the fate of Kentucky's racing future in the balance -- the Kentucky Equine Education Program is sponsoring a rally Saturday at Ellis Park Race Course in Henderson, Ky.

If you're in the region and enjoy or care anything about horse racing, you and everyone you know who agrees with you should be there.

Dubbed "FOREVER ELLIS!" the rally is promoted as "a way for horse industry enthusiasts to show their support for the nearly 90-year-old track and the entire equine industry."

And the industry indeed needs your support.

On June 22, the Kentucky Senate was denied the opportunity to even debate on the floor a proposal to approve video lottery terminals for the state's racetracks. After more than two hours of discussion in committee, the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee voted 10-5 against forwarding the bill to the full chamber for discussion of its merits and potentially an up-or-down vote.

That move was certainly much to the pleasure of Senate President David L. Williams, the Burkesville Republican who advanced an alternate, complex and likely less effective plan to augment Kentucky racing purses via a combination of taxes on lottery tickets, borrowing money from the state pension fund and taxing out of state wagering by Kentuckians.

On Saturday, first post time is 12:10 p.m., and KEEP plans to hold a press conference in the track's winner's circle at about 2:15 (immediately following Race 5) during which an undisclosed list of "guest speakers and industry representatives" will share with the crowd their thoughts about the future of Kentucky Racing and Ellis Park. Because all breeds of horses would benefit from the VLT proposal, KEEP also will conduct a "parade of breeds" after Race 6 to show fans the many different types of horses -- not just racehorses -- that would benefit from the legislation.

I attended Ellis Park for the first time on Aug. 9, and I wish I could make the 695-mile trip from Henderson to Henderson (North Carolina to Kentucky) on Saturday to join the rally, because I found Ellis Park to be a quaint, welcoming and thoroughly pleasant race-going experience. Concession prices were reasonable; a substantial and tasty tuna salad sandwich and large Coke for $5.50 isn't all that bad for a sports venue. The employees were smiling and friendly down to the last ticket-taker and concessionaire.

And, being both from farm country and able to recognize entrepreneurial ingenuity when I see it, I was tickled to see how Ellis Park owner Ron Geary has rented out the infield, as a beanfield. Soybeans, that is.

Built by the Green River Jockey Club in 1922, the track -- originally dubbed Dade Park -- was patterned after New York's legendary Saratoga Race Course, but Ellis by now has plenty of history and character in its own right.

Harness horses hit the track first, and Dade Park's first thoroughbred meeting took place beginning Nov. 10, 1922, as a 10-day stopover for horses and trainers on the railroad trip south for the Fair Grounds winter season in New Orleans. Total purse money for the meeting: $62,000.

Perhaps as a harbinger of the track's long and sometimes troubled future, the Green River Jockey Club went bankrupt in 1925. The track was thus purchased by businessman James C. Ellis, who operated the facility until his death in 1956, though the racetrack's name wasn't changed to match his until two years before he died.

On my recent visit, I went to the mezzanine level beneath the grandstand and took pictures of the "1937 flood line," then back downstairs to see if I could get a good shot of the line from ground level to show just how high the water had gone that year. Weather savaged Ellis Park again in 2005, when a Nov. 6 tornado that killed 22 people in nearby Indiana swept through the track property, destroying 11 barns on the back side, amazingly killing only three horses and no humans.

Encouraged perhaps by free admission all season long, the crowd on the Sunday I attended was reasonably large and included patrons of all ages, including a healthy number of families with young children.

On the way through the gate, I was handed an orange sheet of paper with the contact information for Kentucky legislators who did not support VLTs at the track. And every person with whom I chatted -- be it alongside the rail, in front of the monitors under the grandstand, or in the paddock area -- had Ellis Park's uncertain future on their minds, usually speaking about it in somewhat somber tones.

"You know they say they might close the place after this year," said a man with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and sunglasses, who told me he'd played 18 holes of golf nearby before post time. He'd just hit the trifecta in Race 1 and confided that he never reads the past performances; he always bets on the jockeys. "... But I have a feeling they won't."

Lukewarm optimism, at least.

An older patron stepped up to me at the rail a couple of races later to ask if I'd noticed which horse had gotten up for second. I confided that once I saw which horse was going to win, the placer didn't matter to my ticket anymore. During the ensuing conversation, I told him my stop at the track was a six-hour detour on what should be a 20-hour drive from Kansas to North Carolina.

"You picked a good time to come," the old gentleman said. "This could be the track's last year."

I told him that's exactly why I decided to go a bit out of my way and see the track, and was glad that I had. He said he'd been coming to Ellis Park for decades and would again next year -- if there is a "next year."

Over by the paddock, I met another man, about my age, who said he lived "a mile from Churchill Downs" but had come to Ellis Park with his father on this day because "they say this year could be the last." He was having a good day, hitting exotics in each of the previous two races.

"There used to be better horses here," the man told me as we glanced over at the horses for Race 8 circling in the paddock. "Now it seems like it attracts a lot of long-shots."

And therein lies the problem for Ellis Park. Actually, the racing on Aug. 9 was reasonably good. There were plenty of turf races (which I enjoy), some good riders were on the card (Jon Court, Corey Lanerie, Victor Lebron, Miguel Mena and others), race fields were well-filled, and even the races with seemingly overwhelming favorites ended up being good betting races, or at least bad finishes for the chalk. But the purse money just isn't there to keep Ellis viable vs. regional competition in the long run.

On this day, a $5,000 NW2L at Ellis was worth $10,000, while a statebred $5K NW2L at Hoosier Park in nearby Indiana was valued at $9,000. But Ellis' competitive purse was made possible by a reduction in racing dates to focus the track's purse bankroll on fewer races. With slots and casinos in Indiana and Ohio on the brink of adding slots, as well, the list of racing states with some sort of alternative gaming revenues has swollen to 12, and Kentucky horsemen and tracks suffer a little bit more.

Supporters of VLTs for Kentucky tracks claim potential revenues of $900 million in the first year of operation and up to $1.2 billion by the fifth year. Like all projections, the veracity of those numbers remains to be seen (if Kentucky's legislature will approve added gaming and let the state find out). But even if actual performance falls short of estimates, the cash would be a big boost to Kentucky racing, which might eventually, finally lose Ellis Park otherwise.

And if Kentucky does lose Ellis Park, what has it lost?

Jobs not only in the Henderson area but across the state in thoroughbred breeding, sales and training; likely millions in tax revenues; and from a sentimental sense, a legitimate piece of American history that can be enjoyed today for the very same purpose for which it was designed in 1992 -- an alternately relaxing and thrilling afternoon in the sun, spent watching beautiful horses and their talented riders strive to hit the wire first, carrying our hopes and our wagering dollars along for the ride.

I walked through the gate at 11:30 a.m. with $50 and left for a long drive home a little after 4 p.m. In that time I bought lunch, a Daily Racing Form, an Ellis Park pen, souvenirs for the kids ($25) and I bet on seven of nine races, exiting with $19 still in my pocket. Tell me where else in the world of professional sports that you can have such a full day for so little cost. (It helped that I hit a 10-cent super in Race 5.)

So on Saturday, if you're within traveling distance of Ellis Park, I urge you to turn out in support of ELLIS FOREVER. And whether you're on-site or not, as an outsider offering advice, I urge you to figure out who your legislators are (if you don't already know), find out how they voted on VLTs, and tell them what you think about it.


  1. Ellis Park is located in a rural area with a couple of small towns nearby. If they'd play to their potential they would probably look at a bright future (Pull the Pocket wrote a great article about a harness track that does just that).

    Instead, they do what most tracks do in America: grind it out! And suddenly, a potential 25-raceday 6.000 average-attendance community track (running once a week during the summer months) dies a slow death as an "as many races as we can squeeze out"-affair.

    Ellis doesn't need VLTs, they need a viable concept. They would need to re-invent themselves as a community track rather than pretending that there is any potential for a five-days-a-week simulcasting-oriented state-circuit track in Florence, KY. We're living in an age where the need for simulcasting facilities is waning, to say nothing about the need for state circuits.

    There is some charm to the pea patch, but as long as they don't start developing some actual concepts ("give us money, state!" isn't a concept), I won't cry a tear if Ellis doesn't reopen next open.

  2. It is a sad reality that tracks need VLTs to survive in this day and age.

    The racing community in Ontario went through a similar battle for survival with Fort Erie racetrack this past year. FE has slots, but also a lot of competition from nearby casinos.

    Fortunately, the track survived and will hopefully flourish when new ownership is found.

    Best of luck to Ellis Park and all those who make their living racing there.

  3. It's interesting how perceptions differ depending on where we live, and how we grew to adulthood.

    To me, Ellis Park is adjacent to a booming metropolis. Evansville, Ind., is basically a left turn out of the Ellis Park-ing lot and a right turn into Indiana away. And Evansville has a population of about 117,000.

    I've never lived in a town with more than about 25,000 population, although that place was a suburb of greater Kansas City, a metropolis where millions of people live.

    Tracks that are presently threatening Ellis -- namely Indiana Downs and Hoosier Park in neighboring Indiana -- are both within 30 or 40 miles of Indianapolis, a city of nearly three-quarters of a million. So Ellis is definitely at a disadvantage there. But Ellis wasn't hurting quite this badly until the Indiana tracks became "racinos."

  4. I had somehow memorized Evansville's population memorized as around 70K and didn't confirm, but in any case it's a Single-A market, to use baseball's classification (their team is actually in the Frontier League, but you get my drift).
    What I meant was: why do they need to compete with the Indy tracks at all? Why not just go a tier lower, so both market can complement each other (related question: why do Indy tracks need to compete with Chicago's)?

    The answer is: the horsemen and states are the only ones interested in four or five cards per week at Evansville, or higher purses at Indianapolis. But their interests aren't those of the sport or fans.

    Which is where we return to the Central Authority topic.

    Anyway, good posts today (esp. the Beldame one)!


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