For Thoroughbred racing these are anything but the dog days of summer. The three grade 1 races at Saratoga Aug. 8 delivered monster performances; each effort seemingly trumping the next. The following day at Ellis Park in Western Kentucky, which hosted the Runhappy Ellis Park Derby and four other stakes, the racing was as high-quality as the humidity.
The buzz at the Spa, following Serengeti Empress’ scorching win in the Ballerina Stakes (G1)—which was followed by an even more impressive effort by Gamine in the Longines Test Stakes (G1)—was Tiz the Law’s victory in the Travers Stakes (G1). We’ve watched a lot of races in our time, and it’s rare when a horse can separate itself from the competition in just a few strides the way the New York-bred did in the stretch at the Spa. We can only equate it to Big Brown’s tour de force in the 2008 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1).
That effort, of course, was on the first Saturday in May. This year’s Derby will be on the First Saturday of September, and Sackatoga Stable’s Tiz the Law will be a big favorite. But let’s not count out Bruce Lunsford’s homebred Art Collector, who added the Ellis Park Derby to his collection. Both colts have the look of what it takes to wear the blanket of roses under the Twin Spires.
The racing at Ellis was limited to owners and some 450 pre-paid spectators. We returned to the quaint facility along the banks of the Ohio River, and it still takes a bit to get used to having so few patrons on the apron, but the enthusiasm was there. So, too, was TVG, which helped promote the races nationally and helped gig the handle.
TVG’s Scott Hazelton and Gabby Gaudet were stationed near the paddock and did a better job than we did with the humidity.
Locked down at home with some coverage of Santa Anita Park during the first five months of the pandemic, Hazelton has been impressed with how the industry has handled itself during COVID-19.
“I think everybody has done the best that they can,” he said. “Watching the industry adapt and coming up with a plan…seeing that first hand at Santa Anita; the lengths they went to make sure jockeys were quarantined and setting up the trailers and testing. They really set the standard when everybody was trying to figure everything out, and everybody has worked together, which has been enlightening to see. This industry has adapted to a lot of socioeconomical situations over the hundreds of years…I’m not going to say we are used to things like this, but we’ve been able to adapt and that is what we’ve done, and everybody is doing their part. Everything is different from state to state and county to county. But we’ve carried on with the racing.”
General manager Jeff Inman has carried on during his first season at Ellis. A surge in handle figures —as with most other tracks amid the pandemic—has helped make up what has been lost on track.
“We’ve really had a successful meet so far; we’ve tried to get our signal out,” he said. “Out of state we’ve done really well, and we’ve done a lot of work to drive it. The last two weekends we’ve been able to get on TVG and been able to get a high def signal out…that has really helped us.”
With an eye on the figs, Inman was pleased by day’s end as Ellis posted record handle of $5,241,601 on a 10-race program. The old mark had been set Aug. 4, 2017, when Ellis handled $4,906,096 on a Claiming Crown card.
The handle numbers this summer don’t lie. For July the economic indicators point to handle being up 16.63% from July 2019.
Lunsford, in addition to celebrating his win, took some time to reflect on the bigger picture.
“Horse racing has been one of the beneficiaries of the pandemic. You can see it in the handle,” he said. “Louisville is about to become the center of racing. It’s Kentucky’s turn. You are going to see things at Turfway Park and here. You are going to see a real change.”
That change will be as welcoming as the first breeze of autumn.