Ellis Park's new ownership group described at a news conference Friday its plans and vision to transform the 97-year-old track into a year-round entertainment and gaming destination while also pledging to work to further enhance horse racing.
In that regard, an expanded turf course that will allow more grass racing and the addition of racetrack lights to provide flexibility with post time will be in place for the 2020 meet, said Ken Mimmack, the project director and one of four members of the board of managers who run Ellis Entertainment LLC, the new owner of Ellis Park.
Ellis Entertainment is a subsidiary of New Mexico-based Laguna Development Corporation, which is owned by the Laguna Pueblo tribe. While distinct entities, Laguna will provide management support to Ellis Entertainment. Ellis Park is Laguna's first foray into horse racing.
“We're an entertainment company. So one of the things we think is extremely important is to enhance racing days. But the rest of the days of the year, we want this to be an attraction for Henderson,” Mimmack said. “We want to bring people here and get them excited about the entertainment, the food, the racing, the HHR (historical horse racing) machines, … concerts and special events and this facility just lends itself fantastically for that.”
Mimmack laid out Ellis Entertainment's three-phase plan, the first one in the works, the second one to start immediately after the live race meet ends on Labor Day and the third contingent on business meeting expectations and in consultation with state and local government and economical-development agencies.
Phase 1 included the $11 million acquisition of Ellis Park from Saratoga Casino & Hospitality Group as well as spending several million more in advance of the meet for infrastructure repair and upgrades, including air conditioning, resurfacing the racetrack, tearing down a couple of barns that had gotten into disrepair, removing part of the grandstand that was structurally unsound. A new water system also is in the works.
Phase 2, scheduled to begin after the live meet ends Labor Day, involves a $55 million-$60 million expansion, as well as the widening the turf course and adding lights for the track to allow flexibility with post times when the weather heats up. Both ventures are scheduled to be in place for the 2020 meet. A 70,000 square-foot addition is expected to provide for a much larger gaming floor for historical horse racing terminals —with the addition of up to 900 more gaming machines— along with three restaurants and meeting space.
“If this meets our financing and performance plans, and does what we expect it to do for the enterprise and community in racing, then we would move to a Phase 3,” Mimmack said. “We're working with the state and local entities, tourism and economic development, to do the best job we possibly can to try to enhance the project and work together to make this a really phenomenal facility.
“If we do get to Phase 3, that will probably happen three to four years down the road, maybe bring in a hotel in here, depending on what's feasible and our performance. We know we also want to work with the racing commission and the horsemen to add some days of racing here, so we're excited about that possibility. In the next couple of months, we'll be working on that schedule as well.”
Also speaking at the news conference was Jerry Smith, the president and CEO of Laguna Development Corporation; Ellis Park general manager Jeff Hall and racing secretary Dan Bork, with Laguna marketing chief Skip Sayre the emcee.
Smith, who is part of Ellis Entertainment's board of managers, said that while gaming is going to make the expansion possible, the new ownership group embraces horse racing.
“I come from an Indian tribe where traditions are very much a part of who we are and what we are,” Smith, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, said in a follow-up interview. “What's appropriate is what we want to understand and move forward on it… In this community, horse racing is appropriate. It's this community that puts horse racing out there as their history and who they are. We just want to make sure we treat it with respect and honor. This community sets the standard, and we'll operate within that context.”
Smith told the news conference: “We always look at these projects as a means of becoming part of a community. With the Pueblo Laguna and the Laguna Development Corporation, we have stepped out and begun to get involved and go beyond New Mexico… We look forward to becoming an integral part of your community.”
Jeff Hall, Ellis Park's general manager, has the perspective of having worked for every owner of Ellis Park dating to the estate of James C. Ellis, for whom the track is named.
“The plans they have are staggering for Henderson, Evansville, the whole Tri-State area,” he said of Ellis Entertainment. “A lot of the stuff that's been done, you guys can't see. It's infrastructure, maintenance that should have been done (before)…. We're very, very proud to be associated with these guys. I've been here for just about every owner that's had Ellis Park. The excitement that has been created here at Ellis Park and in the Henderson-Evansville area is phenomenal. I've never seen it this way.”
Echoed Dan Bork, Ellis' racing secretary: “Being here for so long, and now with the new group coming in and what they're doing to make this place what it could be or what it should be, it's exciting to be part of it. They asked me my ideas for things and we're throwing ideas out there, and they're going with it.”
Bork noted that the meet still has its signature racing days yet to come: Kentucky Downs Preview Day, with five $100,000 grass stakes on Aug. 4; the $125,000 Groupie Doll and $100,000 Ellis Park Derby on Aug. 11; and the $100,000 Ellis Park Juvenile and $100,000 Ellis Park Debutante on Aug. 18.
“The buzz has been great,” he said. “We still have a long way to go with this meet. But with these new plans, I'm already looking forward to next year. There is so much room for potential here, so much opportunity. We're doing great, but we can do a whole lot better…. I can assure you over the next few years it's only going to get better.”
Henderson County Judge Executive Brad Schneider came up to the podium during the press conference to express the community's thanks and appreciation.
“Ellis Park is an iconic park in Henderson County's past, and it's an important part of our present,” Schneider said. “Laguna is solidifying the fact that it will be a huge part of our future. That means so much to people here, because Ellis Park is much more than just an entertainment venue. It certainly is that, but it's our connection to Kentucky's signature industry. It is a summertime playground, has been for a century here. To know it will survive and honor the good work that Jeff Hall and Dan Bork have done over the last couple of years holding it together while the finances weren't that terrific, it just makes me feel good as a Henderson Countian that somebody in a corporation like Laguna and its leadership are going to make this investment in Henderson County.
“I hope I speak on behalf of the mayor (Steve Austin) in saying we will do whatever we can to make your experience in Henderson County so wonderful that the investments continue to grow and that this will be one of the most successful ventures Laguna has ever been involved in.”
Skip Sayre, Laguna's marketing chief, called the community support “fantastic.”
“The encouragement, people are excited — just as excited as we are to take advantage of what we see as a tremendous business opportunity,” he said. “We're confident it will be good for the Henderson-Evansville community as well.”
Evansville horse owner Mike Bruder is on the board of the Kentucky HBPA, which represents owners and trainers at Kentucky's five tracks. Bruder said he's had high hopes for new ownership before, sometimes to be disappointed. He likes what he has heard and seen from the new owners.
“I see no reason they would tell us this stuff and not do it, because they did everything they said they're going to do so far,” said Bruder, who has raced horses at Ellis Park for 42 years. “We've had a great relationship so far, and I think it's going to grow.”
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