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Monday, June 17, 2024

Win, Place, and Show

Henderson expects a wave of visitors as Churchill Downs moves races to Ellis Park

For Henderson, Kentucky, recent events are providing an unexpected opportunity to showcase the community and its century-old Thoroughbred racetrack.

Churchill Downs’ announcement June 2 that is moving the remainder of its spring race meet to Ellis Park Racing & Gaming surprised local officials. The decision was made because of the unexplained deaths of 12 horses at the famed Louisville, Kentucky, track, which is home to the Kentucky Derby each May.

Races previously slated for Churchill Downs begin this week at Ellis Park and run through July 3. Churchill Downs Inc. bought Ellis Park for $79 million in September 2022.

Henderson officials say they are sensitive to reasons behind the venue change but also are eager to welcome guests from around the racing world.

“Whenever we received the press release and it was confirmed, we knew it was a historic moment,” says Abby Dixon, executive director of the Henderson Tourist Commission.

Dixon and Henderson County Judge-Executive Brad Schneider declined to speculate how many people the races could bring to the area. Ellis Park, at 3300 U.S. 41, has a 6,000-seat grandstand, as well as standing room-only spaces.

Among the races Ellis Park will host is the Stephen Foster Stakes on July 1. It has a $1 million purse and is a qualifying race for the annual Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“In the region, this is really big,” Schneider says. “These races can already be bet at Ellis, but to see them first-hand is really something. I am really sorry about the circumstances of it all; that’s not a good thing. But to be able to help in this unusual spot is great for our community.”

Schneider notes that Ellis Park’s own annual race meet starts July 7, so for several race teams, the transition from one meet to the next will be simplified.

Dixon says she’s hopeful visitors to the races previously scheduled for Churchill Downs will take time to explore Henderson.

“Nothing is more iconic in Kentucky than Thoroughbred racing,” she says. “The elevated experience that these races will bring (with) the Stephen Foster Stakes is a big deal. We want them to know where they are and are hopeful they will take time to experience what we have to offer.”

The Evansville Convention & Visitors Bureau also is speaking with Ellis Park officials about ways to assist with the unexpected influx of guests.

“This is all coming together fast and furious,” says Alexis Berggren, president and CEO of the bureau. “We want to offer everybody coming to the area the best experience possible, whichever side of the river they’re on.”

According to Churchill Downs, no single factor has been cited for the recent 12 horse deaths, and there is no discernible pattern to them.

Investigations thus far have found nothing unusual with the surface of Churchill Downs’ racetrack, according to a June 2 news release. It says the decision to finish the spring meet at Ellis Park was made in an abundance of caution.

“In addition to our commitment to providing the safest racing environment for our participants, we have an immense responsibility as the economic engine of the Thoroughbred industry in Kentucky which provides jobs and income for thousands of families every day,” Bill Carstanjen, CEO of Churchill Downs Inc., says in the release.

“By relocating the remainder of the meet to Ellis Park, we are able to maintain this industry ecosystem with only minor disruption. We are grateful to the Kentucky horsemen for their support, resiliency, and continued partnership as we collectively work to find answers during this time,” Carstanjen says.

Ellis Park is open daily, but hours vary. Visitors can bet electronically onsite 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Wednesday, 8 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursday, 8 a.m.-4 a.m. Friday-Saturday, and 8 a.m.-2 a.m. Sunday.

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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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