Ron Geary said he is facing a myriad of economic pressures in making Ellis Park a viable operation, but the owner of the Henderson, Ky., racetrack vows to fight the challenges with every resource before he considers closing the facility.
In a wide-ranging telephone interview with The Blood-Horse, Geary, who in 2006 acquired Ellis Park from Churchill Downs Inc., said he will only consider non-racing development of the 86-year-old track as a last resort.
“I don’t plan on selling this,” said Geary, a longtime entrepreneur in other industries. “And I’m not a real-estate developer. I came here to save Ellis Park. I love this property. But when I bought this, I didn’t know Indiana was going to get slots and expand race dates, and that we weren’t going to get slots.”
Geary, who is disappointed support for proposed Kentucky casino legislation is dwindling, claims Ellis Park lost more than $2 million in 2007. And while he is hopeful for a more financially successful 2008 meet, he fears what 2009 brings when neighboring Indiana tracks roll out higher purses and expanded race dates that will conflict with Ellis Park’s traditional summer schedule that runs from early July through Labor Day.
“We are looking at break-even for this year,” he said. “But with (Indiana tracks) getting slots...if I have the meet in 2009 and only have a hundred horses here, I’ve got to look at all options."
“I paid cash for this track and we have no debt,” Geary said of the 231-acre complex. “We are in a good financial position, but nobody wants to continue to operate a business that continues to lose money.”
One option Geary chose has resulted in the loss of 150 union jobs for former pari-mutuel clerks at Ellis Park. Geary last year offered a reported package that included reduced benefits and a pay cut from nearly $16 an hour to $12 an hour, but after a contentious negotiating period that has included an ongoing picket of the track by union members, and federal mediation March 7, the principal players have parted ways.
Geary said he inherited the union contract from CDI when he purchased the track, and surveys of neighboring track personnel wage scales dictated his offer.
“As it turned out, they just wanted to go back to the old contract and make no changes,” he said of negotiations. “They said we could never replace them. Well, we have 29 trained mutuel clerks who are doing just fine, and 50 other applications for people wanting to be clerks. Our clerks are friendly, and our per-patron handle is up.”
An executive with Local 541 of the Service Employees International Union paints a different picture about Geary’s intentions for the track.
“He basically told us he was closing (Ellis Park) Sept. 2, and he is going to make it a shopping mall,” said union vice president Brenda Lynn, who along with other members have been picketing track since Jan. 1. “We even offered to take the (final) proposal and accept the 40% pay cut, and he basically told us he doesn’t want us back.”
Geary admits he sent the union a notice of contract termination in November, and that the former clerks will only be welcomed back under current employment scenarios.
“If they come back, they will come back seniority-wise behind the clerks we have now,” he said. “They have acknowledged they are not coming back. I think they realize they have made a mistake. Now they have threatened to continue to strike and try and damage our meet.”
Lynn, who said the union has been active at Ellis Park for more than 40 years, acknowledged the picket will continue through the end of the Ellis Park summer meet.
“We asked the members, and they said they want to continue out on the line until he closes,” she said. “He wanted to do away with the union when he came in. You work somewhere for 40-some years, and someone comes in and in one year destroys your job.”
Geary said he remains positive about the racing industry despite an unsuccessful 2007 meet that was hampered by a summer heat-wave that produced near-record temperature averages. He also said he was “unfortunate” in the timing of a six-year simulcast agreement signed with CDI. that came just months before the March 2007 formation of TrackNet Media Group, the content consortium of CDI and Magna Entertainment Corp. that effectively ended Ellis Park’s relationship with TVG.
“With all those factors, we ended up about 10% down in handle,” Geary said. “But we are hopeful that we can get those issues solved.”
Geary said he has even looked at some of the tracks MEC has on the market, but will keep his workdays tied to reviving Ellis Park for now. “I just want to focus my efforts on Ellis Park, and on what we can do about 2009,” he said.
A total of $99,989,382 in all-sources handle was wagered on Ellis Park races during the 46-day 2007 meet for a daily average of $2,173,682.