New Ellis Park owner plans $55 million in renovations as handle rises

By Jennie Rees/Ellis Park
July 19, 2019 10:59am
New Ellis Park owner plans $55 million in renovations as handle rises
Photo: Coady Photography

The new owners of Ellis Park Racetrack on Friday unveiled plans to spend $55 million to restore the iconic track to be a showpiece for Kentucky’s horse racing and gaming industry.

Jerry Smith, Managing Board Member of Ellis Entertainment LLC (EE) said, “Today we are excited to announce the dawn of a new era at Ellis Park. We bring more than 20 years of experience in the hospitality and entertainment industry to a project that will put Ellis Park back on the map as one of Kentucky’s premier racing and gaming facilities.”

EE announced Friday the first two phases to include a series of renovations and improvements, many have been completed or in progress. Phase I includes an initial $3 million investment. Ken Mimmack, EE’s Project Director, said, “We have completed resurfacing of the track, repairing and improving the drainage system, removed dilapidated barns, replaced some interior barn walls, replaced the clubhouse roof and have done extensive clean-up and repainting of the grandstand area. We will also update and upgrade the water system.”

Phase II is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2019. This portion of the project will include deferred capital expenditures of $6.2 million including upgrades to the grandstands, barns, site utilities, entryways, landscaping and the audio-visual system. Expansion capital expenditures totaling $47 million will include a new Historical Horse Racing facility, widening of the turf track and installing track lighting to allow for expanded night racing. The new HHR facility will be approximately 75,000 square feet and include the phased addition of up to 900 gaming machines along with three restaurants and a live entertainment venue.

EE officials also announced a long-term vision for ultimately building a hotel or other amenities on the site. Mimmack said, “If the improvements and expansions of Phase I and II perform to expectations then we would look at other ways to ultimately offer a full-service resort experience that will serve visitors and locals alike.”

The sale of Ellis Park was completed June 27. Saratoga Casino & Hospitality Group sold the property to Ellis Entertainment LLC for $11 million. Ellis Entertainment is a subsidiary of Laguna Development Corporation based in Albuquerque, N.M.

According to Marketing Chief Skip Sayre, “We are a company that engages in the communities we live and work in. We look forward to being positive contributors in the local business community as part of our belief in a culture committed to quality, service and value for our partners, employees and guests.”

As part of the sale agreement, Saratoga entered into a management contract to oversee racing operations while Ellis will manage the HHR, food and beverage, human resources and marketing aspects of the business for the rest of the year.

Ellis Park General Manager Jeff Hall said, “All of us here at Ellis Park are thrilled to see the improvements Ellis Entertainment is already making and their plans for the future will insure this racetrack, first opened in 1922, will be an attraction the Henderson/Evansville community can be proud to call their own.”

In the short term, betting on Ellis Park’s horse racing is up a whopping 52 percent after the first eight days of the 29-date meet, including a 9-percent increase in on-track wagering. And the meat of the meet is yet to come. 

Ellis Park’s simulcast signal is being marketed for the first time by the New York Racing Association, a business venture facilitated by Saratoga Casino & Hospitality Group director of racing operations John Matarazzo. SCHG last month sold Ellis Park to Ellis Entertainment LLC and is managing the 2019 meet for the new ownership.

Almost 400 additional outlets are taking Ellis Park compared with last year. Matarazzo also worked with Daily Racing Form to get Ellis into its popular East Coast edition.

“Clearly horseplayers are responding to our increasingly elevated racing product,” Hall said. “There is no one determining factor for the massive increase but rather the combination of John Matarazzo getting NYRA to sell our signal and getting Ellis in the East Coast DRF, track superintendent Glenn Thompson and his phenomenal racetrack and racing secretary Dan Bork working his magic. And we can’t overstate the importance of our relationship with Kentucky Downs and our horsemen. Horsemen follow the money, and that’s translated into the deepest jockey colony and horse population that we’ve ever had.”

Purses paid out to horse owners running at Ellis are scheduled to average $330,000 a day, up 43 percent from 2018’s record purses, a largess made possible because of money transferred from Kentucky Downs to Ellis’ purse account in an arrangement with the tracks’ horsemen’s group, the Kentucky division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association.

“The crowds have been robust, the giveaways and promotions a big hit,” Hall said. “We want everybody to know we’ve brought back $1 hotdogs and $2 16-ounce Bud and Bud Light draft on Sundays. The excitement is palpable. This isn’t us saying that. We’re hearing it from civic leaders on both sides of the Ohio River. It truly is the dawn of a new era, and we at Ellis are practically giddy to see where our new ownership, Ellis Entertainment, takes us.”

Still to come this meet:

Aug. 4 — Kentucky Downs Preview Day, featuring five $100,000 turf stakes designed as stepping stones to Kentucky Downs’ meet Aug. 31-Sept. 12.

Aug. 11 — The $125,000 Groupie Doll for fillies and mares and the $100,000 Ellis Park Derby.

Aug. 18 — The $100,000 Ellis Park Juvenile and $100,000 Ellis Park Debutante, the latter won last year by eventual Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress.

The stakes all include $25,000 in Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund monies available to Kentucky-bred horses, which are the majority of those running.

“While we started off with a bang, we’ve basically just been showing the coming attractions,” said racing secretary Dan Bork. “Our three biggest racing days are in August, and the stream of talented 2-year-olds figures to get even stronger as more babies become ready to start their careers. Our allowance races have been superb, and we expect our horses to make a lot of noise in stakes, if not in their next start then down the road, as we’ve seen with four Grade 1 winners already out of last year’s 2-year-old races.” 


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