Ellis Park topped last year's benchmark meet with an even better one, with total wagering on the 31-date session that ended Monday up 15 percent over 2016.
Now management already is thinking how to improve for 2018.
“We had quality racing. We had a whole bunch of great trainers bring their horses here. We had a great jockey colony, and we had some exciting races,” said Ron Geary, Ellis' president and majority owner. “Our purse money was up over the previous year. The result is that we think this was our best race meet probably in my 11 years. And I think it's just going to get better and better.”
A record $38,380,549 was wagered on Ellis Park, both on-track and from off-track and online outlets. Even with the Aug. 6 card called off after three races and last Sunday's cancelation after a single race because of inclement weather, that's up 18 percent over the $32,537,417 bet on Ellis' racing product in 2016.
Betting elsewhere in Kentucky, out of state and through online outlets was extremely strong on Ellis' races, up 20 percent: $33,560,195 this year vs. $27,872,292 a year ago. On-track wagering on live racing totaled $4,820,354 vs. $4,665,125.
The one number showing a decrease was in simulcast wagering at Ellis on other tracks, totaling $3,543,065. The 8-percent decline is attributable to Kentucky tracks not taking California, Gulfstream and Monmouth Park for several weeks after the company handling their simulcasting signal raised their rates on average 42 percent right before the Ellis meet began.
Putting on-track simulcasting into the mix, wagering during the meet totaled $41,923,614, up 15 percent over last year's $36,395,093.
The abbreviated cards make average daily betting a bit deceptive. For the 31 dates for which at least one race was held, betting on Ellis (on and off-track) averaged $1,238,082. Factoring out Aug. 6 and last Sunday, betting on Ellis for the 29 complete cards averaged $1.3 million.
Field sizes remained very solid with an average of 8.2 starters per race for 256 races in spite of extreme competition for horses in the region during the summer. That's up slightly from the 8.0 average in 2016 for 259 races.
Purses paid out totaled $6,223,300 million, or about $214,000 per complete card, up about $15,000 a day. The average purse paid out was $24,0310, up about $2,000 per race.
Dan Bork, Ellis Park's racing secretary the past 11 years, called it “one of the best summers I think in the history of this track, for sure.
“The fans are phenomenal. That's what it's built on. The fans in this area are very supportive of this track. They come out every weekend, and it's been building every year, getting stronger and stronger.
“Our purse structure is now at the point where we can compete with most of the bigger tracks in the country. There's always room for improvement. No matter how good we think we're doing, we're not even close to where we should be. Our purse structure is great, but we could do a lot better. We've got a good stakes schedule. It needs to improve there, too. We're already looking forward to a year from now.”
The cancelations aside, the meet largely enjoyed terrific weather. The public responded in droves, including this past Sunday's jam-packed crowd for Kids Day and the weekly Value Day featuring reduced prices on select concessions.
Ellis Park does not charge attendance and therefore doesn't have official turnstile counts. However, using other indicators, Sunday's crowd was estimated at more than 8,000, easily the largest in years and with 5,000 considered a sizable assembly. Management acknowledged the massive influx created operational challenges that will be dissected and corrected.
“We sit down after the meet and diagnose what we did and how we can do better,” Geary said. “And what maybe the fans want more. That's why I think we had such great programming this year, that brought out a bunch of people who haven't been here in a while. We will learn from anything we need to improve on, and we will do that next year and do it better.”
Jockey Corey Lanerie needed to improve on his 26 victories en route to last year's riding crown to get his fourth Ellis title, 35-27 over Jon Court. Trainer Steve Asmussen, the 2016 meet leader, and 2015 champ Brad Cox duked it out all meet, with Asmussen prevailing 18-17 for his second title. Asmussen had the numbers, but Cox took the marquee races with three stakes victories: the Ellis Park Turf (Inveniam Viam), Grade 3 Groupie Doll (Tiger Moth) and Ellis Park Debutante (Kelly's Humor).
Mongo Racing, a partnership of trainer J.R. Caldwell and Ruston Jennings, earned its first owner's title with six victories out of only 14 starts.
The hallmark of Ellis has become its 2-year-old program, which has gone from being one of racing's best-kept secrets to national recognition. The form of Ellis Park Juvenile winner Dak Attack was flattered when the horse he beat in winning a Churchill Downs maiden race, Sporting Chance, won Monday's Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga.
Last year, 2-year-olds who raced at Ellis Park went on to finish second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. Bork thinks there are horses in the 2017 crop that could go one step better.
“The quality of 2-year-olds I saw is as good as last year, if not better,” Bork said. “I think a lot of the Kentucky guys left their best horses here instead of taking them up to Saratoga. I think we'll see some Grade 1 horses come out of our races this summer, for sure.”
John Hancock agrees. He's the third-generation trainer, horse owner and lifelong Henderson resident regarded as the mayor of the Ellis Park backside, chief cheerleader and unofficial track historian.
“Last year we all were quoted as saying that would be the meet of all meets, that it would stamp Ellis Park and move it forward,” said Hancock, who is on the board of the Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association that represents owners and trainers at the commonwealth's tracks. “I actually believe this meet here was way better than we had last year, with the quality of horses that were here. Even the 2-year-old of Ian Wilkes that ran Sunday (debut winner Dreamer's Point), down the line he's going to be somebody. This meet might have been above and beyond last year. This meet was a monster.
“We had the meet last year; we built off it. We had some meetings in the offseason to get things done. They all improved. Now we go into the off-season this year and get things ready for next year. It will be here before we know it.”
Ellis Park doesn't go dormant once live racing concludes. The track remains open seven days a week for simulcast wagering and its Historical Horse Racing gaming operation. New this year is the Pumpkinfest and Corn Maze in the infield, Sept. 16-Oct. 31.
Ellis Park's 2017 meet by the numbers
Total racing dates: 31 (includes abbreviated cards Aug. 6 and Sept. 1)
Total wagering (including on-track simulcasting): $41,923,614
Total wagering off track on Ellis: $33,560,195
Total on-track wagering on Ellis: $4,820,354
Total on-track simulcasting during meet: $3,543,065
Total races: 256
Total purses: $6,223,300
Average number of starters per race: 8.2
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