HENDERSON -- There was a considerable amount of activity around Ellis Park on Wednesday, with the opening of the summer meet coming up on June 30.
There were lots of flowers being planted and other landscaping being done. Lots of straight-out construction was going on in different areas of the grandstand.
"How nice it was to pull in here to see new landscaping going on, seeing people putting air conditioners in, seeing people put pride back in Ellis Park," said Chester Thomas, a longtime thoroughbred owner who has had horses race at Ellis Park. "It's so refreshing, this place needed it in a big way. I've been coming here since I was a young kid with my father."
All of this dress-up work was going on one day after the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission unanimously approved the sale of Ellis Park to a new ownership group that has some major plans for the track.
Ellis Entertainment, a subsidiary of Laguna Development Corporation based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is buying the track from Saratoga Casino and Hospitality Group for a reported $11 million.
General manager Jeff Hall talked Wednesday about how renovations on the track have been ongoing with Laguna and Saratoga working in conjunction with each other.
"Saratoga and Laguna have been working hand-in-hand the last four or five weeks doing some renovations here already, wanting to get a start on what the future holds at Ellis Park," Hall said. "There's complete painting of the outside of the grandstands and the clubhouse. We're doing some landscaping in the area where you pull in. We have a new roof on the clubhouse, ceiling tiles have been replaced here and the Gardenia Room now. Upstairs, the Sky Theater, three of the air conditioners have all been replaced for the summer, they give our patrons a little more breathing room up there. I know the last couple of years it's been really hot up there. We sell that out every Saturday and new Sunday.
"We took out the first row of the seating in the grandstands -- they had a structural engineer come in and deem it as unsafe, so we took them completely out. Some of the track improvements, our crew has been working all winter long. The race track is in excellent condition. We put 300-plus loads of sand on the track, we pulled out a couple of old barns, still a couple more need to come down.
"All their renovations will all be done before the start of the live meet."
Ellis Entertainment board manager Ken Mimmack told the KHRC on Tuesday that Ellis Entertainment has a three-phase plan for improvement of the facility, which will cost between $50 and $55 million including purchase and renovations. After the 2019 racing meet, Mimmack said the track's new owners plan to install lights for night racing, widen the turf course and add a larger historical horse racing parlor.
What is going on this summer with the racing meet should be a good springboard to what could be a new age for Ellis Park.
There will be purses over $330,000 offered every racing day, up from $250,000 last year. There will be 11 stakes races with over $1 million in purses offered. The biggest racing days will start July 7 with the $75,000 Ellis Park Turf Stakes for fillies and mares on the grass. The $75,000 Good Lord for 3-year-olds and up will be July 21.
"Aug. 4th will probably be the biggest day we've ever had here at Ellis," racing secretary Dan Bork said. That will be the Kentucky Downs Preview Day, with five stakes races with more than $500,000 in purses offered. The $125,000 Groupie Doll, Ellis Park's signature race, will be Aug. 11, for fillies and mares. The $100,000 Ellis Park Derby will also be Aug. 11.
On Aug. 18, there will be the $100,000 Ellis Park Juvenile and the $100,000 Ellis Park Debutante, which was won by Serengeti Empress, who went on to win this year's Kentucky Oaks.
Racing surface improvements have gotten more attention nationally because of the horse deaths at Santa Anita in California. Doing a lot of work on the racing surface at Ellis Park has made it "better now than it has been in 20 years," according to Larry Jones, a trainer who has been at Ellis Park for 27 years.
"People think sand and red clay are the only ways to make a racetrack; we've got great silt loam on this track, it's got great cushion," Jones said. "They know the best place to get it out of the (Ohio) river here, it's had millions of gallons of water washed over it, it removes all the rough dirt."
The proposed improvement for Ellis Park that got the most attention during its media day was the adding of lights for night racing. Churchill Downs has added night racing, and it has drawn large crowds.
"If there's ever a track that needs night-time racing, in the heat of the summer, this is the spot," Jones said. "I think it will sit in very well with the working people here, it will be a lot better for the horses because they don't start racing in the hot part of the day."
Night racing adds more of a social element to going to the track.
"The thing I notice, I see a different style of people, we're getting different kinds of fans, the younger kids are coming out, the people who will be betting five years from now, 10 years from now, they're getting their taste for this," Jones said. "The nighttime programs definitely bring out the young people, it's the place to be on a Friday night, it is how you get out to different fans."
There will be a trio of twilight Fridays with a 2:50 p.m. post time and the band Tailgate Revival playing from 7-10 p.m. near the paddock.
For racing fans this summer, Ellis Park is offering daily promotions and giveaways. The popular ostrich and camel races July 6 will be sponsored by O.Z. Tyler Distillery, which will have a bar in the grandstand tunnel selling its bourbon. Wiener dog races will be Aug. 3.
Regular post time is 12:50 p.m. Fridays through Sundays, plus July 4 and Sept. 2. The meet runs through Labor Day (Sept. 2).