The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission unanimously approved the sale and expansion of Ellis Park at a meeting held Tuesday. The track, purchased last year by Saratoga Casino and Hospitality Group, also received permission to expand the number of historical horse racing terminals at the facility from 300 to 1,200. The facility will be purchased by Ellis Entertainment, a subsidiary of New Mexico-based Laguna Development Corporation.
In a presentation before the commission, Ellis Entertainment board manager Ken Mimmack told the group that Ellis Entertainment has a three-phase plan for improvement of the facility. Ellis Entertainment has already worked with Saratoga Casino to assess structure safety in the barns and grandstand, closing or repairing some unsafe areas. The roof and water system has also been replaced. Management from Saratoga Casino will remain in place through the 2019 race meet to ease the transition, and afterward Mimmack said the track's new owners plan to install lights, widen the turf course, and add a larger historical horse racing parlor.
“We want this facility to become an entertainment center. We want it to have racing as a primary aspect of it, but we also want to compete with the facility that's across the river,” said Mimmack. “We want to make sure Ellis Park is back on the map. A lot of people we talk to [in Henderson] think it's closed. We need to turn it around and we believe we have a plan to make that happen.”
If the first two rounds of investment (in purchase and improvements) into the property — estimated at $50 to $55 million — are successful, Ellis Entertainment could explore constructing a hotel on the property and renovating barns.
Mimmack said Laguna has been interested in acquiring a racing license in New Mexico, and will still pursue that, should the opportunity arise.
Commissioners expressed enthusiasm for the group's plans while cautioning that they don't take kindly to lip service.
“I just want everybody to keep in mind that these licenses are a privilege, not a right and if you stand before us and say you're going to do things, we're going to hold you to it,” said commissioner Larry Bisig. “I have not been here but a year, but I can tell you it's no more Mr. Nice Guy as regards the racing commission and dates. We're under a ton of pressure and this stuff has got to get done. I hold each of you professionally and personally in charge of making sure that if you say it at one of these meetings where we're taking notes, that it takes place.”
“We expect you to hold our feet to the fire,” responded Mimmack.
Tuesday's meeting was held at Turfway Park, which has been an ongoing sore spot for the commission in terms of a timeline for its renovation. At a December meeting, commission vice chairman Mark Simendinger expressed frustration Turfway has repeatedly presented plans for overhaul and then delayed them. Since that meeting, Turfway has been sold to Hard Rock International.
Turfway was the only Kentucky racetrack which did not offer plans for capital improvements in 2019-20. Churchill detailed its plans for an equine medical center and quarantine facility. Keeneland is in the midst of a series of barn repairs and upgrading to grandstand plumbing and electric. Kentucky Downs is adding more floor space and room for officials and horsemen. Bluegrass Downs has been more reserved in its outlook for upgrades, and indicated new management could look at selling the property.
Ellis Entertainment distributed the following press release to media after the commission's vote:
Ellis Entertainment, LLC (Ellis), a subsidiary of Laguna Development Corporation (LDC) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, confirmed today it has purchased Ellis Park Racetrack in Henderson, Kentucky for $11 million. Current owners, Saratoga Casino and Hospitality Group, Saratoga Springs, New York are selling the property to Ellis.
The transaction was confirmed by both parties following approval for the issuance of a racing license to Ellis by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission on Tuesday June 18.
With an exciting racing season starting soon, Saratoga will continue to operate the racetrack and will serve as managers and operators during the 2019 racing season through a management agreement with the New Mexico buyers. Ellis Entertainment will operate the Historical Horse Racing (HHR) facility and immediately begin maintenance and facility upgrades as part of a comprehensive remodeling and expansion plan.
Kevin Greer, Managing Partner for Ellis Entertainment said, “We are both honored and excited for the opportunity to purchase Ellis Park, one of Kentucky's oldest and most revered racetracks. We appreciate the knowledge and support the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has provided us while we prepare to restore Ellis Park to its rightful place as one of the Bluegrass State's premier racing facilities.”
“We remain committed to the upcoming racing season at Ellis Park and ensuring that it is one of the most successful the property has seen in years,” said Daniel Gerrity, President of Saratoga Casino & Hospitality Group. “We look forward to working closely with Ellis Entertainment in the coming months to ensure a seamless transition of ownership.”
Ellis also announced they will invest an additional $55 million at the property to include an expanded Historical Horse Racing (HHR) facility, new and improved food and beverage offerings, refurbishment of the grandstands and barns along with a number of upgrades to both the public facilities and back-of-house operations.
“Ellis Entertainment brings a vastly experienced group of professionals to this project who will work alongside the track's current management team to insure our guests have a first-class experience. We will follow our parent companies' longstanding and highly successful commitment to quality, service and value. We look forward to being productive and engaged members of the local business community,” Greer said.
The transfer of ownership is scheduled to be completed within the next several days.
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