By Jennie Rees, for Ellis Park — They’re approaching the starting gate for the RUNHAPPY Meet at Ellis Park. Here’s a look at the 31-date session that kicks off this Sunday, June 27, and runs through Saturday Sept. 4.
But first – a bit of history as Ellis Park’s centennial approaches: The track initially called Dade Park was built in 1922 on 204 acres of wild river-bottom land then known as Green River Island. The inaugural meet started out in the fall with five days of harness racing, followed by 10 days of thoroughbred racing. Dade Park promptly fell into bankruptcy, and while there was racing in 1923 and 1924, it was auto racing over Labor Day weekend. James C. Ellis bought the track at a bankruptcy sale, and thoroughbred racing has been held every year since. Ellis Park is located on the tiny sliver of Kentucky that is north of the Ohio River, thanks to the New Madrid fault earthquake in 1812 that changed the course of the river.
Today’s news (jockey division): Florent Geroux, one of America’s premier riders, will make Ellis Park his summer base for the third straight year. Geroux originally was set to return to Saratoga this summer but ultimately decided to stay in Kentucky. Riding at Ellis Park provides Geroux and other leading jockeys the flexibility to ship out of state on weekends for big races as their business dictates.
“Flo will be riding at Ellis on a regular basis, with the possible exception of an occasional weekend if we go out of town to ride,” said Geroux’s agent, Doug Bredar. “It appeared we wouldn’t have as many opportunities (in New York), and Florent wanted to stick closer to his family; his two young daughters are growing up. It just made more sense. The problem at Saratoga is that we didn’t have enough day-to-day business to keep going, and when we were there, we’d be gone some weekends anyway. We know we’re probably going to the Haskell (at Monmouth Park to ride Kentucky Derby runner-up Mandaloun). We’ll probably go to Arlington Park on their big days, and he just rode at Canterbury (winning two stakes). You’re talking a lot of difference places he can go.”
Geroux is named to ride in five of Sunday’s eight opening-day races, including four for his main client, 2020 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox.
Today’s news (trainer division): Ellis Park’s racing department has twisted itself into pretzels to accommodate as many outfits as possible, given the huge demand for stall space with Churchill Downs being closed this summer for off-season training. Among those squeezed in late: Chad Brown, the four-time Eclipse Award winner as North America’s outstanding trainer (2016-2019), will have 14 horses stabled at Ellis. The East Coast-based Brown, who last year started a Churchill Downs division, ran his first two horses ever at Ellis in 2020. He starts off his first Ellis meet stabled on the grounds with a first-time starter, Klaravich Stables’ Orchestration, in Sunday’s fifth race for maidens 3 years old and up. Look for Brown, with his deep arsenal of grass horses, to be a serious presence on Kentucky Downs Preview Weekend.
Pertinent info: Racing is Friday, Saturday and Sundays, plus Thursday July 1. First post is 12:50 p.m. Central. Admission is free. Reserved seating available in the Sky Theatre, Clubhouse and Grandstand Boxes through ellisparkracing.com or by calling 812-435-8918.
Sunday’s opening card: Two allowance races and a 2-year-old maiden race highlight the eight-race card, for which entries were taken Wednesday. Race 4 is a first-level allowance for 3-year-olds. The Cox-trained Swill, who finished fourth in last year’s Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club, makes his first start since finishing fourth in Aqueduct’s Jan. 1 Jerome Stakes. Race 7 is a turf allowance for 3-year-olds and up. Continuation, owned by 2020 Ellis Park meet-leader PTK LLC, needed nine starts to win a race but had been running well throughout. Trained by Lexington-based Dane Kobiskie, Continuation could thrive in his grass debut. Two-year-old maiden fillies are spotlighted in Race 6, with the Brian Lynch-trained Freudian the one to beat after finishing second in her debut at Churchill Downs.
Something for everyone
For fans and horseplayers: Ellis Park’s races will be in high-definition for the first time throughout the meet. Look for the TVG2 racing channel to show most of the races. Minimum bets: $1 for win/place/show, exactas, doubles and Super Hi-5; 50 cents for trifectas, Pick 3, Pick 4, Pick 5; 10-cent superfectas.
For the family: You can’t get better value than free general admission at kids-friendly Ellis Park, a Tri-State tradition spanning generations. Ellis Park kicks off with the first of its weekly Sunday Funday Dollar Days, featuring $2 16-ounce draft beer and $1 hotdogs, peanuts and popcorn. There will be promotions every weekend, including Kentucky HBPA College Day on Sunday, July 25, where a full-time student after every race will win an iPad mini. Live music will be performed every Saturday in the beer garden area.
Not to be missed: Ellis Park will stage three of the Midwest’s biggest summer racing programs on Aug. 7-8 and Aug. 15. Kentucky Downs Preview Weekend (expanded from a single day with the addition of two stakes) on Aug. 7-8 features seven turf stakes worth at least $100,000 that serve as automatic qualifiers for fees-paid berths in corresponding big-money stakes at Kentucky Downs. Aug. 15 is RUNHAPPY Ellis Park Derby Day, featuring five dirt stakes that include the $200,000 Ellis Park Derby, the $125,000 RUNHAPPY Groupie Doll, $125,000 RUNHAPPY Ellis Park Juvenile and $125,000 RUNHAPPY Ellis Park Debutante. Also Aug. 15: Ellis will stage a Talk Derby to Me Party.
For horsemen: Purses are scheduled to average a record $350,000 a day, including Kentucky-bred maidens running for a track-record $51,000. The meet features 16 stakes races. The 2-year-old program should again be fertile ground for future stakes-winners.
Riders up!: Ellis Park will have one of the deepest jockey colonies in the country – if not the deepest just based on sheer numbers of talented riders. Where to begin?
Past meet leaders: Defending champ Joe Talamo, Rafael Bejarano, Corey Lanerie, Jon Court, James Graham and Brian Hernandez Jr.
Former Eclipse champions: Julien Leparoux, Shaun Bridgmohan, Hernandez and Talamo.
Breeders’ Cup winners: Florent Geroux, Martin Garcia, Robby Albarado, Leparoux, Hernandez and Talamo. Garcia and Albarado also are past winners of the Preakness Stakes.
Mainstays: Adam Beschizza, Miguel Mena, Gabriel Saez, Chris Landeros, Declan Cannon.
Look for big second year: Colby Hernandez and Mitchell Murrill got their toes wet last summer and could make a splash in their second Ellis season.
In from Indiana: With Indiana Grand racing Mondays through Thursdays, several prominent jockeys plan to ride regularly at both tracks, which are three hours apart. Heading the way are Marcelino Pedroza (to ride regularly at Ellis for the first time in several years), DeShawn Parker (whose 5,869 victories rank 22nd all-time and seventh among active riders), Fernando De La Cruz and Jose Batista.
More newcomers: Louisville product Drayden Van Dyke, in his first full year in Kentucky after spending his first seven years as a jockey in California; Francisco Arrieta, third in both wins and purse earnings at Oaklawn’s winter-spring meet; and David Cabrera, a leading rider in the Southwest who comes in from Texas to ride much of the meet.
Oldies but goodies: Special recognition goes to ageless ironmen Court, the six-time Ellis meet champion going strong at age 60, and the 50-year-old DeShawn Parker — both classy, talented and fan favorites.
Best group ever stabled at Ellis?: With Churchill Downs being closed this summer for off-track stabling, Ellis Park likely will enjoy the best overall group of horses training at the track in its long history. Industry-transformer D. Wayne Lukas will have his entire stable at Ellis for the first time, while Bill Mott’s Churchill division will be on hand. Along with four-time Ellis meet-leader Steve Asmussen and Mark Casse, who both have had a large collection of horses here in recent years, the track will have four Hall of Fame trainers appearing regularly in the entries. The star power includes branches of two of the most powerful stables in the country in Brad Cox and Chad Brown.
Defending trainer titlists: Brad Cox (fresh off his first Triple Crown race win with Essential Quality in the Belmont Stakes and winner of a record-tying four Breeders’ Cup races in 2020) and Kenny McPeek (winner of last year’s Preakness with the filly Swiss Skydiver plus 70-1 Belmont winner Sarava in 2002) are always among the ones to beat and last year tied for the meet crown with 10 wins apiece.
Henderson’s favorite sons: Larry Jones and John Hancock.
Other leading trainers with horses to be stabled on the grounds: Bret Calhoun, Norm Casse, West Coast-based Keith Desormeaux, Greg Foley, Vickie Foley, Chris Hartman, Bryan Lynch, Eddie Kenneally, Mike Maker, Paul McGee, Steve Margolis, Ron Moquett, Randy Morse, John Ortiz, Dale Romans, Brendan Walsh, Ian Wilkes and Brian Williamson