The RUNHAPPY Summer Meet at Ellis Park kicked off Thursday with what is the new normal, at least for now: capacity limited to 50 percent in two reserved-seat areas and no general admission. To Henderson Mayor Steve Austin, just staging an opening day with any spectators was a victory after the havoc the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked on the world, including horse racing.
“It’s great,” Austin said. “We were concerned that maybe we weren’t able to have an opening day at Ellis Park. It is limited participation, but it’s great to have that. I’m glad the governor worked with Ellis Park and the tracks to get some folks in right now and maybe the possibility of increasing attendance in the future. It’s something people look forward to. It’s an annual event, kind of like baseball, every summer Ellis Park opens. So it’s great that Ellis Park is opening today, and great that we have a number of people here – and it’ll be even better once it can be enlarged as far as attendance.”
Four of Thursday’s races were forced off the turf by the deluge of rain in recent days. All the same, a healthy total of $2,212,620 was wagered on the nine-race card, the majority across the country through online betting platforms as most racetracks that are running are doing so without spectators.
“It’s been a tough few months for Ellis Park and the whole community, and I was really pleased that we could put together this race day today,” said Ellis Park general manager Jeff Inman. “The community pulled together and supported us. The staff pulled together and supported us, and I couldn’t be prouder of everybody.”
If it was a unique opening day, with the seating limitations, Inman said: “I think the fans overall are positive…. A few people are disappointed that they can’t be on the rail or in the grandstand. But most of them are really happy and positive that we actually have live racing again.”
Inman acknowledged some opening-day operational glitches, specifically with the race video camera work.
“We lost a few cameramen at the last minute; we desperately tried to get them hired,” he said. “Our camera work today wasn’t our best. We’re working on it, and working to have that problem fixed as quickly as possible.”
The strength of the jockey’s colony lived up to its billing.
James Graham, last year’s leading rider at the meet, took the early lead by winning the first race on the maiden-claimer Smirk for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. Graham followed that with victory on Calumet Farm’s Easy Shot in the sixth race, a second-level allowance race that came off the turf.
Rafael Bejarano, back riding at Ellis Park regularly for the first time since he left for California in 2007, didn’t waste any time getting back in the winner’s circle, either, taking the second race on the $16,000 claimer Gangly for trainer Ron Moquett.
The first 2-year-old race of the meet was won by the first-time starter All I Know, who shipped in from Keeneland for owner-trainer Jason McCutchen. All I Know paid $41.60 to win after leading all the way under Crystal Conning in the five-furlong race to prevail by 1 1/2 lengths over 9-1 Fast Bob, with favored Looting third. Conning is an apprentice jockey who has won with six of her last 12 mounts, including her last three – one each at Ellis, Belterra and Indiana Grand. She began riding last year.
Julien Leparoux, who will ride regularly at Ellis Park for the first time this summer after going to Saratoga for most of his career, won the finale aboard the maiden Not A Problem for trainer Rusty Arnold.
“Especially because some of the situations we’ve faced, we’ve really been blessed with a lot of talented jockeys this year,” Inman said. “And that is really part of what we can offer this year. We were blessed to get the RUNHAPPY sponsorship, and one of the reasons we did was because of the great 2-year-old program that we have here at Ellis Park. We have some really good horses, we have some really good jockeys. There’s going to be a lot to look forward to this meet.”
Ellis Park runs through Sunday, then is closed for live racing (while remaining open for Historical Horse Racing gaming and simulcasting) next week to accommodate Keeneland’s five-date make-up meet. Ellis resumes live racing July 17 with a Friday through Sunday format through Aug. 30, with the track’s traditional closing seeking turned over to Churchill Downs for a delayed Kentucky Derby Week.
Management is hoping that after the break for Keeneland, additional areas in the grandstand boxes and picnic tables on the racetrack apron will be available for the public as reserved seating.
“We have to have contract tracing (ability), so we have to do seats by reservations,” Inman said. “So if you come here hoping to be on the lawn or the grandstand, we’re not there yet.”
Allie Sclafani photo