The end of Ellis Park's 2019 highly successful race meet — which saw wagering increase 21 percent over 2018 and purses paid to horsemen go up 30 percent — conjures bigger visions for 2020.
Ken Mimmack, manager of new owner Ellis Entertainment LLC, was mesmerized by the huge crowd that turned out Sunday for Kids Day.
“While Ellis Park doesn't charge admission, making it impossible to know crowd size, he said, “as far as I know, we came pretty close to a record day of attendance. We want that to be commonplace at Ellis Park and for Henderson. We're just so excited to be here. I have a smile on my face; it's hard to quit grinning.
“The support of the community, the horsemen, the racing commission has just been outstanding — and the support of the other (Kentucky) tracks. We've heard from the other tracks how important Ellis Park is to the circuit, and they've really stepped up and helped us make this meet and give us an indication of what we think it could be in the future.”
Ellis Entertainment LLC officially took over as Ellis Park's new owner two days before the 2019 race meet began, the 97-year-old track's third owner in less than a year.
The newest ownership — a New Mexico-based concern involved in the gaming, entertainment, hospitality and travel industries —seeks to further diversify and broaden beyond its home state, with Ellis Park its first racetrack. Expectations for the 2019 meet were high all around — including by the new owners, track management and the horsemen. The results proved even better.
“It's exceeded our expectations,” Mimmack said. “We always believed that ever since we started doing due-diligence on Ellis Park, that it could really turn into something for the future.”
Ellis Park general manager Jeff Hall agreed, saying, “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.”
There are the tangibles that can be quantified such as the increased betting, which was up 21 percent in spite of racing two fewer days, 27 to 29 last year. Two days were canceled because of extreme heat, one of which was made up, and another day lost after torrential rain.
Fueled by $5 million in purse money and Kentucky-bred supplements transferred from Kentucky Downs in an agreement with the tracks' horsemen's association, the Kentucky HBPA, Ellis Park paid out a record $9 million in purses, up from $6.9 million in 2018. The average purse was $36,000, up from $27,500 a year ago.
Then there were the intangibles that signaled Ellis Park's ascent as a player on the national scene:
Florent Geroux, who ranks eighth in North America this year in purse earnings at more than $8 million, staying in Kentucky instead of returning to Saratoga, riding at Ellis Park when he wasn't out of town for stakes.
Tyler Baze, a well-known fixture on the California circuit, riding almost every day of the Ellis Park meet.
Leading trainers such as Mark Casse stabling horses at Ellis Park for the first time in almost 40 years, and Brendan Walsh having a division here for the first time. Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen and Brad Cox adding to the numbers of horses they have racing and training at Ellis Park.
The fact that it's not a shock when a 2-year-old (Nucky) who ran this summer at Ellis Park in a maiden race — and finished fourth — won Monday's Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity at 35-1 odds.
Dennis' Moment, whose dazzling 19-length maiden victory has Ellis fans thinking they'd seen the Breeders' Cup Juvenile or even the Kentucky Derby winner.
“It's getting tougher and tougher, the standard is getting higher and higher with the money now,” said Walsh, who won seven races. “It's not easy to win at Ellis anymore, but it's a good place to start off and to develop a young horse.”
“It's been a great, great summer here,” said racing secretary Dan Bork, who has overseen Ellis Park's racing program the past 12 years. “The racing has been the best probably that's ever been here — and definitely since I've been here. We gave away record purses. We've had some of the best riders riding here. The horses, horsemen here have been phenomenal. We're already making plans for next year.
“This has definitely been a great meet, and I can promise you next summer will be even better.”
Ellis Entertainment paid $11 million for the track's assets from Saratoga Casino & Hospitality Group, the minority owner that bought out majority owner Ron Geary's interest half-way through last year's Ellis Park meet. Ellis Entertainment has pledged to spend at least an additional $55 million in renovating and expanding the property. Millions of dollars were spent on deferred maintenance just to get the track in shape to run this summer.
By the 2020 meet, scheduled to begin June 28, pending Kentucky Horse Racing Commission approval, the turf course will have been widened (though the new parts will not necessarily be ready to race on) and lights will be in place to provide the option for racing into the evening, including when extreme heat is expected.
Plans call for a 72,000-square foot facility expansion to open in 2021 that will quadruple the size of the existing historical horse racing gaming area.
“We went from thinking, 'Are we even going to be back next year?' to having a future,” said trainer Don Campbell, an Ellis Park mainstay.
Vic Stauffer, agent for Tyler Baze, said he had expected a track akin to “a dusty county fair” when he came to Ellis Park for the first time.
“The reality was a vibrant, Kentucky racetrack with a massive future,” he said.
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