New deal on the table to keep Ellis open

After surviving 86 consecutive years amid competition from riverboat gaming, floods and a tornado, Henderson's Ellis Park racetrack announced Thursday it was closing its doors.

A financial dispute between the owner of the track and horse owners derailed the live meet one day before it was to begin.

Then late in the afternoon, there were signs a last minute deal may be in the works.

Owner Ron Geary said his new strategy that was supposed to turn the track around was rejected by the horse owners and trainers, so the track would stay empty this summer.

Jockey Joe Ventimiglia said he was riding horses on this track in the morning and saddling them in the afternoon in anticipation for Opening Day 2008. "I had four jockeys in my corner as a valet and we were riding 26 races tomorrow," he said.

Ron Geary had said it was shaping up to be the best meet in years. And now? "I'd like to start by saying what a difference two weeks can make," he said.

And with that, Geary announced the track won't see any action on the 4th of July or perhaps the foreseeable future. He explained that this year he had signed contracts with over ten advanced deposit wagering companies, or ADWs, Internet betting sites and TV channels.

"We think we had our game plan in place. So that's one reason why we were excited," said Geary.

With the ADWs carrying the live meets, Geary said he could increase revenue by $11 million and split his 5 percent commission with the horsemen. All they had to do was agree to allow Ellis park to send the broadcast signal to the ADWs.

Last Thursday, they said no, they wouldn't do it because they didn't think they were getting their fair share of the money.

"Obviously, this is a horrible development and if I look a little weary, it's because not any of us around here have slept because we've been looking at all kinds of opportunities and change," Geary said.

The Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association explains its position by saying when simulcasting was started it was feared that it would grow more popular than live racing.

"So, our thoughts were that if we see that happening, we can say, we're not going to have our signal; go there and what happened with the ADW companies is we said, 'look, if you want to benefit from our performers, our horses, then you have to pay for that right,'" said Marty Maline of the Kentucky HBPA.

Thursday morning, Ron Geary said this was final and that he couldn't foresee anything that would happen that would allow the track to stay open.

Perhaps he spoke too soon. In a meeting with the horsemen Thursday afternoon, the two sides reportedly agreed to run the meet off the contract they already signed for this racing season and then renegotiate later. That's the offer on the table now.

It's now up to the board of directors of the Horsemen's Association. A six-person majority will have to agree to race under the terms of the existing contracts in order for the season to start. We're waiting to hear their decision and will keep you posted.