For the second time in less than a year, Kentucky’s Ellis Park has been sold. However, the new owners of the Henderson race track said they plan to invest up to $100 million to make it a viable year-round facility.
On Tuesday, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) voted to approve the sale from Saratoga Casino and Hospitality Group to Ellis Entertainment LLC, a subsidiary of New Mexico-based Laguna Development Corp (LDC). LDC manages gaming operations for the Pueblo of Laguna tribal nation. In addition to Ellis Park, LDC owns three New Mexico casinos and is seeking a license for a proposed racetrack in New Mexico.
The $11 million transaction is set to close in the coming days, Skip Sayre, LDC’s chief of sales and marketing told Casino.org.
Among the planned investments in the facility include a more than five-fold expansion of the number of instant racing machines at the track. Currently, Ellis Park features 179 gaming machines, and the new owners received approval from the KHRC for 1,200, which would make it Kentucky’s largest parlor.
Running an instant racing parlor is a fit within the company, which has been in the gaming business for 20 years, Sayre said.
Room for Growth
Of Kentucky’s four instant, or historical, racing parlors, Ellis Park is by far the smallest. Through May, the track’s instant racing venue has generated $89.2 million in wagers, with the track generating $7.1 million in revenue. That’s a nearly 20 percent jump from the same period last year. However, LDC and Ellis Entertainment saw a substantial opportunity for growth at the track, which is why the company is investing $55 million into the parlor expansion and track upgrades. Sayre said LDC conducted research to determine if the region, which has a population of about 500,000 in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, could attract enough customers on an ongoing basis. The track is located about five miles from Indiana’s Tropicana Evansville Casino, which features 1,121 slot machines and 49 table games. The market is similar in size to the Albuquerque market in New Mexico, which is home to five casinos that are doing well according to Sayre. In that regard, he added that Ellis’ expansion shouldn’t take away too much, if any, from the Tropicana. “Gaming customers are very loyal based on location,” Sayre said.
“Convenience is a huge driver. So, when we looked at this market, Henderson-Evansville, we looked at it as a two-casino market. We think that if a guest wants that kind of experience, they’re more likely to go to the most convenient location.”
Expanding the parlor will also allow Ellis Park to become a year-round destination for customers in the area, and Ellis will pull from LDC’s experience in New Mexico to help make that happen.
Ellis Downs begins its 29-day summer meet on June 30, with racing on weekends through Labor Day. Since the meet is less than two weeks from starting, officials from Saratoga Casino and Hospitality Group will be on hand to manage the meet during a transitionary period.
“We remain committed to the upcoming racing season at Ellis Park and ensuring that it is one of the most successful the property has seen in years,” said Daniel Gerrity, Saratoga Casino and Hospitality Group’s president.
Saratoga, which own the harness track and racino in the upstate New York town but is not affiliated with the historic thoroughbred track, bought a 30 percent stake in Ellis Park seven years ago. Last July, they bought out majority owner Ron Geary, a Louisville businessman who bought it from Churchill Downs in 2006. While Saratoga runs the track operations, Ellis Entertainment will run the track’s instant racing parlor. At the same time, Ellis officials will begin renovation work on the 97-year-old facility.
“It’s an iconic, revered track that’s been around for a long time,” Sayre said. “It’s been in disrepair. It has not had the type of capital investment, upkeep, and maintenance that it deserves.”
After the meet, work will begin on expanding the parlor, adding new dining options and renovating the track’s grandstand. Future plans include a hotel at the track.
By: Steve Bittenbender
Expertise: Horse Racing, Legislation, Sports Betting.