HENDERSON, Ky. (Monday, May 24, 2021) — Ellis Park’s 2021 racing season is only five weeks away, with the trickle of horse vans and trailers bringing in the racing stock soon to become a steady stream.
Western Kentucky’s annual summer race meet opens Sunday June 27 and closes Saturday Sept. 4, with racing Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays along with Thursday July 1. Ellis Park will operate at full capacity following last year’s pandemic-mandated health measures that prevented having general admission and limited reserve seating.
Horses were allowed entry into the Ellis backstretch earlier this month, with daily training commencing May 13.
Stall space is especially coveted this year at Ellis Park. That’s because Churchill Downs, which is replacing its turf course, will be closed for its normal summer off-season stabling and training. The Louisville market is a significant source of horses for Ellis Park’s race meet, with many Churchill-based horsemen making day trips to Henderson to race during the summer. However, area training centers and Churchill’s satellite Trackside training facility will continue as major suppliers of horses for the Ellis racing programs.
‘Good but challenging problem to have’
Ellis Park can accommodate about 750 horses for stabling, with other stalls reserved for horses shipping in on race day.
“It’s a good but challenging problem to have, with demand greatly exceeding supply,” said Jeff Hall, Ellis Park’s director of racing operations. “We are agonizing that we can’t accommodate everybody. We do know this: That with our record purses and the outfits that will be on the grounds, we’re going to have a memorable meet. That’s especially true now that we’ll be able to be at full capacity for fans after last year’s COVID restrictions.”
Among the outfits stabling at Ellis Park for the first time are a pair of Hall of Famers: four-time Kentucky Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas and Bill Mott. While Mott will remain in New York, with his Ellis operation overseen by longtime Kentucky assistant Kenny McCarthy, the legendary Lukas, 85, will be out in the mornings astride his pony at Ellis Park this summer rather than going to Saratoga.
Trip down memory lane
Trainer and lifelong Henderson resident John Hancock said 2021 will be like a trip down memory lane. Hancock grew up on the Ellis Park backstretch with fellow trainers Dale Romans and siblings Greg and Vickie Foley, whose dads were fixtures at the track. Those trainers will have horses stabled in Henderson for the first time in years.
“You’ve got the Foleys coming back, Hall of Fame trainers, people who have run horses but not been stabled here. It’s great for the community,” Hancock said. “The farmers are going to be selling the hay and the straw. The restaurants and motels will be lively. This meet, the new faces that are coming and old faces coming back, it’s going to put a lot of money into Henderson County and Vanderburgh County. It’s going to be great for everybody.”
For Evansville’s Bonnie Pittman, embarking on her sixth season as a trainer at Ellis Park, the opening of the barn area is a welcome annual rite after commuting 1 1/2 hours each way to a southern Illinois training facility for the winter.
“We come in here and the track is ready to go for us,” she said. “It’s springtime and everything is popping. Everything will start getting busier in a couple of weeks. We’re going to have lots of horses here this summer because of Churchill’s closing. The barns will be packed. It will be a wild summer for us. There will be lots of things to do and lots of jobs. A lot of people will rent rooms around here and we all eat out about every day. It will be busy for everybody.”
‘Nothing more thrilling on summer weekends’
Those messages of employment and dollars being spent are near and dear to Brad Schneider. The Henderson County Judge Executive this past winter testified before a Kentucky legislative committee on the importance of Ellis Park to his community and the need to preserve Kentucky’s racetracks by passing legislation to protect Historical Horse Racing in the state.
Beyond being a civic leader and government official, Schneider just loves going to the races at Ellis Park.
“As a fan of Ellis Park and an admirer of the management team and staff at the track, I am so thankful they’ll get to host a live meet without restrictions,” he said. “For our region, there is nothing more thrilling on summer weekends than to hear the call to the post for a race at Ellis. I can’t wait to get a plate of Western Kentucky barbecue, a cold beverage and a program, place a bet or two, and watch the horses run!”