Over the past couple of weeks, I have had the opportunity to visit both Saratoga — known throughout the racing world as “The Spa” — and little Ellis Park — known in Kentucky racing circles as “The Spa of the South.”
The title bestowed upon the lovely Saratoga, mind you, is in loving reference to the beautiful town of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., the home of the historic racetrack and one of this country’s most renown and featured “hot springs.”
For generations, it has been the place for the rich and famous to travel to and enjoy as a brief respite from the heat of summer and the woes of work. It has been a retreat for some of the world’s most noted politicians, movie stars, and sportsmen and sportswomen. It has been the time honored location where all Thoroughbred breeders — ever since before World War 1 — have shipped their favorite yearlings to be paraded and offered for sale to the world’s audience of leading buyers. And, it has been the home of Thoroughbred racing’s premier race meet since it opened in 1863.
Many claim that it is the oldest sporting venue of any kind in this country — including the famed Fenway Park in Boston. Folklore has its’ own history.
Truth be known, though, it is the fourth oldest racetrack in the United States, surpassed by the third oldest in Pleasanton Fair Grounds in Northern California; the second oldest in The Fairgrounds in New Orleans; and the oldest, Freehold Raceway, home to standardbred racing.
But who is counting, right?
The place is the home to the National Museum and Racing Hall of Fame for a reason. It is historic. It is legend. It is monumental. It is beautiful. It is fun.
And, I’ll be honest. I love the place. I love the town. I love the track. I love the history. I love the Wishing Well Restaurant and the bar, Siros, which sits adjacent to the track. And, I love the Stakes races and the quality of horses they attract.
It is a journey that every Thoroughbred fan should make, if given the opportunity. It is a classic.
On the other hand…
The moniker for Ellis Park has been generated from the excessive heat and humidity that both humans and horses face when they travel to Henderson, Ky. and to the track that lies next to (and sometimes in) the Ohio River next door.
In a word, Ellis Park is not known as a tourist attraction. Or a historic destination. For that matter, not known as a “Spa” either. More like a hotbox. Jockeys — and “former sportswriters” — facing weight issues can come here and leave a pound or two on the floor, and we’re not talking about English currency.
It is normally steaming. Literally. As in steam coming up off the ground. The soy beans, which have been raised in the infield for years, even sag under the burden of summer’s blast. Sometimes in the past, it has gotten so hot that even the idea of jumping into the murky, muddy waters of the river starts to be appealing.
In the past, Ellis Park hasn’t been the red-headed step brother to Saratoga. It isn’t even the black sheep of the family. It has always been the cousin that nobody knows and or ever gets invited to the Family Reunion.
But after visiting the two racing venues over the past couple of weeks, I came away with a couple of rather astounding observations. Even to me.
First, the racetrack at Ellis Park — in my opinion, which has never been humble — is a better racetrack surface right now than the one at Saratoga. And, I think that stands for both the dirt track and the turf surfaces.
I don’t have the statistics about racetrack injuries, breakdowns, spills, accidents, or horses that have exited either Saratoga or Ellis Park races with health issues. Those that do have access to that information probably won’t share or disclose those numbers in the public light of day.
But I do have ears. And, after years of listening to horses train and race, I know the difference of when a hoof hits the ground on a good, sound, forgiving racetrack and the sound of when a horse travels over one that is deeper, harder, drier, or, more tiring.
In the last couple of weeks, I have been to both racetracks in the mornings and the afternoons. I have listened to horses traveling over both the track surfaces. And, to be very honest, I think the racetrack surfaces at Ellis Park right now SOUND better to me.
So much so, in fact, that I if I had a horse ready to run today, I would prefer to run him or she over the track at Ellis Park rather than the ones at Saratoga.
On Sunday, I got the chance to talk to some of Kentucky’s best riders. I chatted with Corey Lanerie. I talked with Brian Hernandez. I got the chance to visit with Joe Rocco. These three guys can ride anywhere, and often times do. Corey just rode in Chicago during the Arlington Park Festival of Racing. Brian just got back from Monmouth Park, where he rode McCraken to a near victory in the G1 Haskell Invitational. Joe has become a regular at all the Kentucky tracks — including both Keeneland and Churchill Downs. And, each time I got to field them a question or two, I asked them all about the quality of the Ellis Park surfaces.
I didn’t ask them to compare Ellis Park to any other track. I didn’t ask them to criticize any other track surface. I simply asked them how the Ellis Park track surfaces were playing.
To a person, they all agreed. They were safe. They were fair. And, they all said the same thing: if you had a good enough horse, you could win from anywhere on the track — from on the lead; from a stalking position; from the back of the pack.
That’s exactly what you want a racetrack to be. Safe. Fair. And, accommodating.
Secondly, the grounds at Ellis Park have never, ever looked any better than they do today. Clean. Convenient. Fun. Engaging. Owner Ron Geary has done a masterful job of making the little track look beautiful and accessible. He stops and chats with everyone from the grandstand to the Turf Club. Shakes hands. Slaps backs. Proud papa-like. He has restored the track and the faith of the fans. And, it shows.
On the way out of the paddock for the G3 Groupie Doll, trainer Brendan Walsh, who recently broke his collarbone in a riding mishap, stooped over and picked up a discarded paper cup and shoved it into a nearby trash can. Immediately, I said, “This place has never looked better to me.” Walsh turned and said, “You never see garbage on the ground here.”
It is hard to complain about the look of Saratoga. It is an icon in America racing history. It’s history stands as tall as the spires on the wooden grandstand; a testament to time, history, perseverance and preservation. It is beauty.
But, now, Ellis Park is a picture of beauty, too.
And, finally, there were the crowds. Hard to compare several thousand to a couple. But I will.
At Saratoga, I stood beside the paddock. I ate a burger outside the grandstand. I bought a ticket to the clubhouse and got a prime spot by the rail. I walked with a couple of horses over from the backside. Not once, nary a time, did anyone in the crowd stop to say hello or offer a friendly greeting. Not a NYRA representative, whom I saw. Not a racetrack employee, who I engaged. Not another fan.
Oh, they rooted and cheered as the horses neared the finish line. Sometimes they “oohed and awed” at the site of horses in the paddock. The enthusiasm was fine. Not out of the ordinary. Not overly loud. Yet, not unassuming, either. It was OK.
Until you compared it to the crowd at Ellis Park. On Sunday, the crowd was amazing. The fans stood for every race. They cheered for every horse they bet on. They crowded to the paddock. They yelled the names of their favorite jockeys. And, as soon as the races were over, Mom and Dad brought Junior and Sissy down to the winner’s circle to get autographs, and pictures with riders, trainers and nearly anyone they thoughts was important.
It was fun. And, it spread through the crowd. People stopped to shake hands; tell stories; laugh; drink beer; laugh; share memories; and laugh.
Ellis Park may not be Saratoga. Maybe it really isn’t the “Spa of the South.” The little track in Henderson, KY. may not have a Stakes race every day of its meet. In fact, Sunday was the only date it will have a Graded Stakes event this year — although it will have some more good stakes races to come. And, it may never have a Triple Crown winner ever race over its grounds. (If they did, though, they would have a safe, fair, great racing surface to do so.)
But, on this past Sunday, none of that mattered. This past Sunday, Ellis Park was every bit as good as Saratoga to one race fan. Even better.