Kentucky racing in the summer months hasn't gotten much attention over the years, but that could change if Ron Geary has his way.
Geary, who on July 17 announced he has a definitive agreement to purchase Ellis Park from Churchill Downs Inc., was on hand at the western Kentucky racetrack July 19 for an opening day that may have exceeded expectations. It was sunny and humid, with a temperature in the mid-90s and a heat index of 101, but more than 5,200 patrons were in attendance for a Wednesday afternoon of racing in a festive atmosphere.
CDI has owned Ellis Park since 1998. Now, the Louisville, Ky., businessman will get his chance to build business at a racetrack with strong ties to the local community.
"We want to take Ellis Park to the next level," Geary said after opening ceremonies at the track that actually sits on the Indiana side of the Ohio River. "We want it to be one of the best small racetracks in the country. We want to make this the Del Mar or Saratoga of the Midwest."
Ellis Park has grown somewhat in stature nationally because it's part of the Churchill Downs Simulcast Network. But some locals believe the corporate culture wasn't a good fit for a track like Ellis Park, located in a largely rural market. In addition, CDI owns Arlington Park, an Illinois track whose racing season competes directly with that of Ellis Park.
"We've backed the new ownership 110%," said Mike Bruder, a racehorse owner whose serves as the Ellis Park representative on the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association board of directors. "We'll do our part to fill races. The whole community is behind this place."
There appears to be a cordial relationship between Geary and CDI, and already the two have agreed to work together on racing dates beginning next year. Before CDI bought Ellis, there were fights over the July 4 racing schedule; next year, Churchill and Ellis Park will seek Kentucky Horse Racing Authority approval for a holiday weekend overlap.
Such a schedule would add about two more weeks to the Ellis Park meet.
"I think the sale is a win-win situation," said Brian Elmore, the vice president and general manager at Ellis Park who worked for CDI for about 10 years in Indiana. "It hasn't been a secret Churchill has been trying to sell Ellis Park. Ron (Geary) is a good businessman. There are a lot of advantages to being a smaller operation."
Opening day began with a ceremony that included a moment of silence for the 25 people killed when a tornado struck the Evansville, Ind., area last fall. The storm heavily damaged Ellis Park, parts of which were rebuilt by CDI. Even before the first race, crews were working in areas of the sprawling property.
Elmore credited CDI for carrying out the reconstruction process. "In five months, we got done what generally would take a year," he said.
One of the dignitaries in attendance was Jonathan Weinzapfel, the mayor of Evansville. He issued a proclamation calling July 19 "Ellis Park Day" in the city, and called the track a "first-class neighbor" to Evansville.
"I think everybody realizes this is a new day for Ellis Park," Weinzapfel said.
Opening-day attendance was up 14% from 4,604 last year and the highest figure since CDI has owned the property. On-track handle on the live product was $302,542, up 5% from $287,880 last year. It appeared grandstand concessions selling beer and food did excellent business.
Two track records were set on a fast track in the hot conditions. Suzy and Charles Machamer's Hoho Tow won a five-furlong starter allowance test in :56.46, which topped the previous record of :57 3/5 set in 1988 and tied in 1992. In the following race for $4,000 claimers, Aaron Shorter's Flank Drive won in 1:03.36 for 5 1/2 furlongs to break the record set in 2002 by 0.01 seconds.
The Ellis Park meet runs through Labor Day, Sept. 4, on a Wednesday-through-Sunday schedule. Post time is 12:40 p.m. CDT.