With the general manager of Ellis Park saying June 27 that the track is "over the hump" in its efforts to clean up an inordinate amount of rock in its dirt surface, horsemen are hopeful the problem has been corrected and the 29-day meet begins with solid support in the entry box.
Ellis' maintenance crew has been working diligently over the past week in an effort to clean up the rock that was apparently contained in a large amount of sand brought in last fall to renovate the racing surface. Many trainers who have had horses there since it opened for training May 20 in preparation for the July 4 opener in the Henderson, Ky., had expressed concern over substances that were in the sand.
"I think we have gotten over the hump, but there is still work to be done," Ellis general manager Bob Jackson said June 27.
The track reopened June 26 for training after being closed for three days to permit crews to remove as much of the rock as possible. There have been no official recorded workout times yet, according to Equibase. But Jackson said there were a number of horses that galloped over the track both days to the satisfaction of the riders and trainers.
Jackson said some rocks were still in the dirt surface, but that is common at the track since water trucks and tractors are on the oval as often as 50 times a day.
While there has been considerable progress made in cleaning up the problem, Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said June 27 "everybody admits there are still rocks in (the surface). I don't think they can let up now."
According to the Henderson Gleaner, horsemen attending a June 26 meeting with Maline concurred there had been significant progress in the rock removal efforts. "It's 100% better than it was" when the track opened for training May 20, one horseman told the newspaper.
Maline said Ellis management has been proactive in trying to correct the problem, but with the June 30 entry date for the opening-day card looming, a push is needed to convince horsemen to enter and ship their horses for the holiday opener.
With only about 200 horses stabled at Ellis Park, the track in western Kentucky relies upon a large number of horses to ship in for the races and depart once they have run. Maline said some trainers may be reluctant to undertake that effort considering the concerns over the racing surface and that they have options to ship elsewhere, primarily Indiana, to race.
"From a confidence standpoint, after listening to horsemen they are quite concerned," Maline said.
Maline said he proposed that Ellis consider removing dirt from the main track and sifting it to remove as much rock as possible in an effort to convince horsemen they should prepare to race at Ellis and enter their horses for the opener.
"I suggested that to instill confidence in horsemen throughout the state that are interested in running there, the answer would be to re-sift it (dirt). I think there is a wait and see attitude on their (management's) part. They don't intend to do that until they see how it (entries for opening day) goes."
Maline acknowledged that to remove the surface and re-sift it would be costly and logistically difficult, considering how close it is to the opener. He said he also suggested that management try to get some of the Kentucky-based jockeys currently riding at Churchill Downs to go to Ellis during morning training hours to work horses over the surface. That, Maline said, could help the riders see for themselves whether the track is safe and help the confidence level among owners and trainers.
Trainer Buff Bradley, an Ellis Park regular who ships in to race from his Churchill Downs base, said he is not planning to deviate from his plan to run about two dozen horses at the Ellis meet, including one that will be entered Saturday for the July 4 card.
"I am hearing that things have gotten better," said Bradley, who has not visited Ellis to look at the surface.
"It (having material with too much rock in it put on the track) was a mistake made by somebody and it shouldn't have happened. Everybody knows that. But they have ample time to get this fixed."
With Indiana Downs providing a viable option for horsemen who ship to race, Ellis Park was already facing a competitive environment this summer even before the problems with the surface became apparent.
Overall, Bradley said and he and other Kentucky-based trainers would prefer to race in-state than ship out of state, but that they have to be confident in the safety of the track.
"Kentucky racing is very important to us and I feel like Kentucky really needs this (a successful Ellis Park meet)," said Bradley, adding that there is only one horse, an Indiana-bred, that he plans to race at Indiana Downs.
In an effort to help boost entries, Bradley said Ellis management should consider providing some financial incentives to help horsemen offset the cost of shipping to the track this year. "I think they should subsidize costs in some way for anybody that ships in there who is more than 30 minutes away," Bradley said.
Meanwhile, Maline said the Saturday entry box would tell whether trainers have confidence in the reports they are getting about the improvements in Ellis' surface.
"They're sitting up here (at Churchill Downs) not knowing if it is safe or not. Horsemen and exercise riders (at Ellis) have said it has gotten better. Maybe that will be good enough for everybody. I hope so."