Ellis Park is unique. A quirky one-mile chute on the elbow of the clubhouse turn of Kentucky’s only mile-and-an-eighth oval. It sits just north the Ohio River, but, nonetheless, is in Kentucky. Soybeans in the infield that collectively, barring flooding or drought, might be worth more than the horses running the races. It’s a throwback that is part county fair. And, like history’s mysteries, some of its statistics are hard to come by.
Now, the highest purses in at least 15 years (and, literally, who knows how long) will be offered at the small Henderson track where, in recent years, the racing product has struggled against the slot-revenue-infused purses at Indiana Downs.
The summer mainstay of Kentucky racing will offer an average of $210,000 in purses each day in its 30-day stand that begins July 2 and ends Labor Day. That’s an increase of more than 35 percent, thanks to revenues from Ellis’ slot-like historical horse racing parlor and a contribution of $1.35 million from Kentucky Downs (the Franklin track that also offers the games but only can pay out the purse share of its revenues during its handful of racing days). The increase also will allow the restoration of the Ellis Park Juvenile Stakes for 2-year-olds that had been on hiatus.
Owner Ron Geary said in a statement that he believes this will be the 94-year-old Ellis’ best meet in 20 years. For sure, it’ll be the best for purses since at least 2001 and maybe longer. Records that far back aren’t readily available from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission or a statewide horsemen’s group. (This will be updated if the star is unearthed.)
A 2001 Ellis press release on a purse increase said: “The purse increases … will boost Ellis Park’s average daily purse monies to a record $219,850 on days when the racetrack runs 10 or more races.”
“On days when the racetrack runs 10 or more races” is a pretty big caveat that could skew what the 2001 meet’s actual figure for average daily purses was. But it is for sure that the 2016 Ellis meet will be the track’s most lucrative, on average, in at least that long.
In spite of the purse structure in recent years, the Pea Patch boasted some notable entries. This year’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes winner Brody’s Cause debuted there and 2015 champion sprinter Runhappy also won at Ellis last year.
Besides what could be even better horses and fuller fields because of the purse increases, the county fair feel will remain too with ostrich, camel and weiner dog races (that young children, including my own, really like). The feel is the same for my son running around there now as it wise for me as a boy 40 years ago with my father and mother.
Regardless of whether it’s a record purse level, the news is unquestionably good for Kentucky racing and Kentucky’s throwback track. Keeneland Race Course famously used the marketing phrase “racing as it was meant to be,” but, in a different sense, it might better apply to Ellis Park. May this year’s beans be as bountiful as the purses.