Jun. 20—Some of the best 2-year-old race horses that have ended up at Churchill Downs in various races during Derby Week, or on Kentucky Oaks or Derby days, have been working and racing at Ellis Park over the last few summers.
"Our racing just keeps getting better, too, with current standouts such as Sconsin, Midnight Bourbon and Crazy Beautiful — and of course, Art Collector — running here last summer," said Jeff Hall, Ellis Park's Director of Racing Operations. "I can't wait to see what comes out of our 2021 'baby' races and stakes."
Ellis Park is glad to have fans back in the stands for 2021.
Ellis Park's 99th season will feature record purses, horse races shown in high-definition and arguably its deepest jockey roster ever. But what is Ellis Park General Manager Jeff Inman most anxious for?
"We're looking forward to the roar of the crowd and getting back to what has made Ellis Park so popular for so many generations in the Tri-State region," Inman said. "This is going to be the first year that we're broadcasting in high-def. We'll get our race signal out to more people. More people will see Ellis than ever. That's fantastic and can't be underestimated. Even so, what we're really excited about is getting fans back in the stands."
The 31-date RUNHAPPY Meet at Ellis Park will start Sunday, June 27 and finish up Saturday, Sept. 5.
Ellis last year was limited to socially-distanced reserved seating and no general admission because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021 meet will return to full capacity, with free general admission. Ellis runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays along with Thursday, July 1. Post time for the first race each day is 12:50 p.m. CDT.
Henderson's Bill Latta is among the owners and racing fans with great anticipation for a big bounce back meet. Latta, the retired president of an area insurance company, has attended the Ellis Park races every year for the past 65 seasons, since he was a tyke going to the track with his parents.
"I've been more of a patron than an owner," Latta said during Ellis Park's media day. "I've been coming here since I was 5 years old, my dad loved horse racing, we came to the track every time we had a family outing.
"I love this place, have for many years. My brother and I used to walk around and pick up tickets, we'd take them home and my dad would have all the winners written down, and every now and then we'd find one. We'd find one that had the cash. We were 7 years old cashing tickets for $10."
Long-time Ellis Park trainer John Hancock echoed Latta's sentiments. Hancock has trained for Latta through the years.
"Ellis Park is my life, it's always been my life," Hancock said. "What will be here you're going to see the middle class up from quality of horses as good as what Ellis Park has ever had. We were blessed last summer with Art Collector.
For the second year in a row, the meet will be sponsored by the Claiborne Farm stallion Runhappy, whose 2015 season as champion sprinter was kicked off by an allowance victory at Ellis.
RUNHAPPY will also be the title sponsor of four stakes on Aug. 15: the $200,000 Ellis Park Derby (which last year was captured by Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass winner Art Collector), $125,000 Groupie Doll, $125,000 Ellis Park Juvenile and $125,000 Ellis Park Debutante. The $100,000 Audubon Oaks for 3-year-old fillies at seven-eighths of a mile will also be contested that day.
Purses are scheduled to average an Ellis-record $350,000 a day, with maiden races going for $51,000 for Kentucky-bred horses. The 16-stakes schedule includes two new races for the highly successful Kentucky Downs Preview program, which has expanded from five to seven grass stakes on Aug. 7-8.
The Ellis Park jockey colony will feature the bulk of Churchill Downs' elite roster. Among those returning will be 2020 Ellis champion rider Joe Talamo and past meet leaders Corey Lanerie, Rafael Bejarano, James Graham, Brian Hernandez Jr. and Jon Court, along with two-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Julien Leparoux. Leading riders from Indiana Grand such as Marcelino Pedroza, DeShawn Parker and Fernando De La Cruz also plan to ride regularly at Ellis. Notable newcomers include David Cabrera, Drayden Van Dyke and Francisco Arrieta.
"I didn't think we could top last year's jockey lineup, but we are adding even more depth," Hall said.
Starting opening day, crowds will be able to enjoy Sunday Funday Dollar Days, the weekly $2 16-ounce domestic draft beer and $1 hot dogs, peanuts and popcorn. There will be live music every Saturday and a "Talk Derby to Me" Ellis Park Derby Party on Sunday Aug. 15.
Racing enthusiasts on-track and off-site will appreciate Ellis Park broadcasting its races in high definition for the entire meet.
Ellis Park will open its gates at 8 a.m. CT on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with the Gardenia Room on the Clubhouse second floor serving breakfast. Henderson's J & B Bar-B-Cue will return with a stand underneath the grandstand on race days. Inman said that Ellis is working to get local food trucks to provide more choices in the beer garden area near the paddock.
Tickets for Clubhouse and Sky Theatre dining and grandstand boxes can be purchased at ellisparkracing.com/admissions or by calling 812-435-8918.