During my internship with Thoroughbred Times last summer, one of the things I enjoyed most was the weekend day trips to nearby racetracks with former Assistant Today Editor Jeff Apel.
One of our trips took us west to Henderson, Kentucky; home of Ellis Park. I left the track that day with a new favorite out-of-state racing destination (and about $100 ahead for the day, which certainly didn’t hurt my opinion of the place).
After having such a positive experience with my first visit to Ellis, I made a point of making the track a cornerstone of my summer road trip. The track’s announcement that it could shut the lights off at the end of the year without slots legislation made a trip to Henderson this summer an even higher priority, just in case it comes true.
I left my hotel in Shelbyville, Indiana Saturday morning coming off about four hours sleep after a busy night at Indiana Downs. The plan was to get to Ellis by the day’s first race at 12 p.m. Central Time (which completely threw my internal clock out of whack). That was quickly shelved when I found my path to be obstructed by a bridge being rebuilt from the ground up with no signs leading to a detour. I spent the next hour driving through rural Indiana’s narrow, twisting, turning and dead end-ing back roads and farm service lanes while my GPS worked frantically to get me back on the freeway. After lots of driving and listening to Michael Jackson’s greatest hits (considering the time and place, it seemed fitting), I finally got on course.
One thing I remembered from my first visit to Ellis was the incredibly dangerous left turn needed to pull into the track’s entrance. Henderson’s main drag is set up as a boulevard, so getting into the track’s driveway from the other side of the road requires crossing two lanes of oncoming traffic without the assistance of a stoplight or anything else to slow the other lane down. Leaving the track is just as scary. I couldn’t imagine taking a trailer full of horses across that turn.
I’ve noticed that region of Indiana and Kentucky does not seem to protect the motorists any more than it has to. While driving through Evansville, Indiana before the races, I saw a sign at an intersection that read something like “High Accident Area.” Instead of doing something to improve the safety of the crossroads, the city simply put a sign up telling drivers they were probably going to get hit. Dynamite.
Needless to say, I survived the turn and entered the back way into Ellis Park. The path is quite scenic, leading to endless fields of various crops if one decides not to turn off into the track’s parking lot.
I got there about an hour late, and with an opening day crowd, that meant I was going to have to do some hiking. Though there is a blacktop parking lot, the majority of racegoers parked in a grassy field adjacent to the stretch, reminiscent of an auction, flea market or other large, informal community gathering. I got that feeling a lot there, and that’s not a bad thing.
I finally made it through the gates prior to the third race.
Ellis Park is a spread-out track, but unlike Indiana Downs, there are places everywhere on the grounds to eat, drink, watch the race and place a bet. Between the apron and the paddock is a grassy path dotted with picnic tables and boards for playing corn hole. Behind that are several lean-tos with betting windows, simulcast screens, stands for food and drink, and a bar (and thankfully, lots of fans to fight the heat).The track seems to take the phrase “a day at the races” quite literally, giving people plenty to do outside of the races themselves.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a “community event” feel to a day at Ellis Park. Perhaps it was just an opening weekend rush, but the place was packed both days I was there. With crowds like that, I can not believe the place is going under, even if they are only buying hot dogs and beer. Parents and grandparents teaching their children about the sport were plentiful, as were young groups of friends deciding which horses to vote for. The steps up to the grandstand were used just as frequently as makeshift bleachers.
Even the infield gives off the feeling that the track belongs to the community. Every year, a soybean crop is planted in the middle of the oval, which is kept up by the grounds crew, then harvested, with the payload going to charity. That’s just cool.
If I can get away with gushing about the atmosphere at Ellis Park for one more paragraph, even the gift shop does things right. It sells the standard hats and T-shirts, but there are also many items directly associated with the track that make for unique souvenirs. Jockeys’ whips and goggles are available, but my personal favorite items were the numbered smocks worn by a horse’s handler in the paddock. Some of them had seen better days, but they make for neat, offbeat mementos.
After the race, I headed over to the hamburger stand to partake in Ellis Park’s biggest attraction. As some of you may recall, I listed the Ellis Park hamburger among my holy trinity of racetrack foods, and that day’s meal was no different. I can’t define what exactly makes the Ellis hamburger stand apart from its racetrack burger contemporaries, but it alone is worth the price of admission. I wanted to ask the man behind the grill what his secret was, but I decided that, like a magic trick, some things should just be enjoyed without getting into the hows and whys.
Opening day at Ellis Park was also “Funny Cide Day,” featuring appearances by the dual classic winner, Sackatoga Stables’ Managing Partner, Jack Knowlton and various Funny Cide merchandise (I wanted to try the Funny Cider, but it was just too hot out for a drink like that). I missed the horse’s first appearance, but made sure to get a spot by the paddock for his second and final showing after the fourth race. He was led up and down the paddock fence for anyone within arm’s length to touch. After a little shoving to get a spot on the fence, I finally got to pet the neck and shoulder of the champion. I considered finding a container for the hair left behind on my hand to place next to my dirt from Churchill Downs, but most of it blew away before I had time to conduct a search. Oh well…
Funny Cide was well-behaved considering the new location and all the strange people touching him. I know a lot of horses that would have gone ballistic under similar circumstances. He got a little antsy near the end, but nothing worth serious reprimand from his handler. The horse was eventually joined by Knowlton and Ellis Park owner Ron Geary, who held his grandchildren as they pet the Kentucky Derby winner. After visiting with his admirers, Funny Cide was paraded in front of the grandstand, where a steady roar of applause followed him down the stretch.
After Funny Cide departed, Knowlton went back to the merch tent to sign autographs. I told him he had one heck of a horse and managed to get one of my business cards into his hands. I even got him to sign my picture to “The Michigan-Bred Claimer.” If Mr. Knowlton is reading this, thanks for stopping by!
While we are still figuratively near the paddock, I will take this moment to quickly criticize Ellis Park for its paddock setup. Only one side of the of the paddock is available for the public to view the horses, which can lead to quite a bit of crowding on the fence. As a photographer, this caused quite a bit of trouble with people’s heads getting in the way of my shots, and as a handicapper, the higher-numbered stalls were so far away that getting a good look at the horses became difficult. Also, working to find an open spot on the fence was a constant distraction.
If my readers have not yet noticed, I’m kind of big on getting the paddock right. I don’t necessarily have a prototype of what a good paddock should be, but I know one when I see one.
There was actually some horse racing going on throughout all this, too. An awful lot of of the riders had ridden at Indiana Downs the night before, which I found to be quite impressive. I drove the same distance and did about a quarter of the work they had and I sure didn’t feel like picking up six or seven mounts that day. Then again, I doubt they spent the night in the casino, but it is still quite the trip, nonetheless.
Though I took an absolute thrashing from a handicapping standpoint, I did claim a big moral victory when Michigan-bred Speak of Kings took Saturday’s feature race, a $30,000 allowance optional claimer going 5 1/2 furlongs on the turf. He went off as the favorite both in the morning line and when the gates opened, and moved late to win the race. Speak of Kings has represented his home state well as a regular on the Kentucky circuit, winning four races in 2008 and only missing the board once this year.
On Sunday, I got the opportunity to speak briefly with track owner Ron Geary. He was out in the picnic area meeting and greeting with track patrons, and as he walked by, I told him he was running a fine operation. He thanked me and we talked for a few minutes about hard times. When I told him I was from Michigan, he asked me how Pinnacle’s racing date situation was looking and we discussed purse structures. I didn’t manage to give him one of my business cards before he had to go, but getting some one-on-one face time with the track owner was pretty memorable regardless.
I left Ellis Park that weekend throughly defeated at the windows, but the experience of being there far outweighed the cost to play the game. Ellis Park is out of the way from most of my usual Kentucky destinations, but I wholeheartedly recommend a visit the track if one’s adventures lead to the western part of the state. Hopefully the track can manage to cure what ails it without having to close the doors, because tracks like this do too many things right to deserve to fail.
Behind the jump are some pictures from my weekend at Ellis Park…