Only a few days before Ellis Park opened its doors for the 2019 meet, Ellis Entertainment LLC finalized a deal to become the new owner of the 97-year-old race track located in Henderson, Ky. Thanks to quick fixes at the track and increased purse money siphoned from Kentucky Downs, the outlook was encouraging, and big numbers resulted.
After the final day of live racing Monday, Ellis Park paid out a record $9 million in purses, up from $6.9 million in 2018. The betting public followed the money, as wagering increased 21%, according to the track, despite running 27 days, two fewer than last year.
Ellis Entertainment, a New Mexico-based group with interests in gaming, hospitality and tourism, became the track's third owner in a year, purchasing from Saratoga Casino & Hospitality Group.
The momentum at Ellis Park figures to continue with renovations and two long-overdue features on the racing side.
The $55 million renovation plan may include adding lights for night racing. For those who have attended Ellis Park for live racing on a warm summer day, the value that it would bring is easily understandable. On the simulcast side, Ellis Park would also avoid direct competition with Saratoga, which surpassed $700 million in handle during a record season that also ended Monday.
Pending approval by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, the other big item in advance of the 2020 season is an upgrade to the turf course at Ellis Park. The focus of the project is to widen the track.
Ellis Park's general manager, Jeff Hall, said, “People are coming back to Ellis Park to see what we’re all about now…Our 2-year-olds are probably as good as anywhere in the United States.
“It just looks like Ellis Park is on the rise again. We’re going to be a premier racetrack, no doubt about it.”
Other long term renovations for the facility which may or may not be completed before next summer include property expansion plans that benefit the facility year-round, and not just during the live racing season. Those projects include quadrupling the size of Ellis' instant racing area, with those machines fueling purse money.
Of the many racetracks that could use a facelift, Ellis Park has long been positioned near the front of the line. Though the improvements are belated, it is great to see this Western Kentucky track with a long history of thoroughbred racing make the turn to better days ahead after completing its most successful meet in years.
2019 Meet Highlights
James Graham is the Leading Rider
With Corey Lanerie not riding at Ellis Park on Monday, it left the door open for James Graham to capitalize on the opportunity to win his first riding title in Kentucky. Graham, thanks to two victories on the day, ended up leading the meet with 26 wins. Lanerie, the three-time defending meet leader, who took the opportunity to ride Ellis Park Derby winner Gray Magician to a runner-up finish in the Smarty Jones Stakes (G3), finished tied for second with Tyler Baze with 25 wins.
Steve Asmussen is the leading trainer and owner
For the third time in his Hall of Fame career, Steve Asmussen was the top trainer at Ellis Park. Asmussen won 24 races en route to claiming the title over Brad Cox, who finished with 18 wins. Asmussen was also the leading owner with five wins in 2019.
High Expectations for the Juveniles
With top Kentucky-based barns content to get 2-year-olds started at Ellis, there are high expectations and Breeders' Cup hopes for many juveniles who raced there. A few of the top names include
, trained by Dale Romans, won his first career race at Ellis Park in July. He owns the 2-year-old crop's current top Beyer Speed Figure of 97 and is scheduled to start in Churchill Downs' Iroquois Stakes (G3) next time out.
Rowdy Yates, trained by Steve Asmussen, won the Ellis Park Juvenile and may also go on to the Iroquois. The Oklahoma-bred could join Asmussen's string at Remington Park, too.
is a Steve Asmussen-trained filly that finished fith in her Churchill Downs debut before winning back-to-back races at Ellis, including the Debutante.
Peace Achieved broke her maiden at Ellis Park in July. Over the weekend, the Mark Casse-trained colt followed it up with another win in Kentucky Downs' Juvenile Stakes, a $500,000 race.
began her racing career by winning her first start, a maiden special weight contest at Ellis Park. The Brad Cox trainee scored in Kentucky Downs' Juvenile Fillies Stakes, another $500,000 event, with one of Ellis Park's regulars, Florent Geroux.