Ellis Park closing

Friday, July 4, 2008

HENDERSON, Ky. -- Shane House doesn't have to think too far into the future to see what a permanent closing of Ellis Park means to him.

House, a 35-year-old Georgia native who hauled his 12-horse stable from Tampa Bay Downs to Henderson for the summer meet, knows no racetrack means no payday.

"We're all-in for this meet," House said.

Now House, along with other owners, trainers, track employees and business owners, are hoping a last-minute deal can be reached to save the track and it's summer meet, which was scheduled to open on Friday.

Ron Geary, who owns the 86-year-old Henderson track, announced Thursday the track would shut down amid a bitter dispute over account wagering. Geary said he doubted he could finish out the upcoming meet schedule without the $15 million he had been depending on from account wagering.

The account wagering was blocked by the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protection Association, which is seeking a larger share of those revenues.

Geary said he made a proposal to KHBPA, which shut down the account wagering, that would allow the betting dollars to flow again and start racing by Wednesday.

"I'd be thrilled to get an agreement in place and get back to racing. I didn't buy this park (two years ago) to wind up shutting its doors," Geary said.

Rick Hiles, president of the horsemen's association, said he didn't attend the meeting after which Geary said the proposal was made.

Hiles said those at the meeting included trainers' employees, but was not a representative collection of owners and trainers. Hiles said Geary gave them phone numbers for association leaders "And said, 'Call 'em up and tell 'em to vote yes on this proposal.' People are calling me and I say, 'I don't know what proposal you're talking about."'

About 400 horses are on the grounds. Geary said a decision has not been made on how long the stable area will remain open.

Decisions on what will be done with the money in the track's purse account have not been made, Geary said.

The track had 500 employees of which 60 were permanent and 440 were seasonal.

For business owners in western Kentucky and southwestern Indiana, the future of the track is important to their bottom lines.

Gene's Restaurant in Henderson had 10 or 12 people from the track at one point, said Zack Thomason, who owns and operates the restaurant with his parents.

"One of the guys is from Atlanta," Thomason said. "He stays at one of the motels, and he eats at my place every night, and usually brings people with him."

The House of Como restaurant in Evansville is another popular spot for racing people. Owner Martha Hage said the restaurant has enough of a customer base to survive without the track, but the closure would leave a hole socially.

"We've had some really good people come in. That's what I'd miss, more than the economic impact," Hage said.

For horsemen, the problem becomes where to run during the summer.

"If we had heard about this a long time ago, we could have gone elsewhere. But now we're here and out all this money. We just want them to run this meet, then decide what's best," House said.

Ron Moquette, who has stabled the past 11 years at Ellis Park, said he hopes Churchill Downs in Louisville takes up some of the racing slack. Without such a move, Moquette said, he'll look to go out of state.

"Even if they figure out a way to make it open, I can't go. My owners won't let me go," he said. "They'll think, 'How do you know they won't close in two weeks?' "

Information from: The Gleaner, http://www.thegleaner.com/

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