It’s been an eventful six-year ride for Ron Geary as owner of Ellis Park racetrack in western Kentucky.
He took over a track that was recovering from extensive damage caused by a tornado about a year before he became owner. He navigated the track through lean years and planned its expansion into casino-style Instant Racing.
Now he’s on the verge of taking on a minority partner: A subsidiary of New York-based Saratoga Harness Racing Inc. wants to buy a 30 percent stake in the thoroughbred track at Henderson.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission is reviewing the $4 million deal and could decide whether to give its consent later this month.
Geary, who purchased Ellis Park from Churchill Downs Inc. in 2006, said the track would benefit from a new investor willing to pump money and expertise into the operations. His new partner would take over day-to-day operations.
“We have a good chemistry and we think we’re going to have a good opportunity to work together,” Geary said by phone Friday.
Jamie Hartman, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Saratoga Harness Racing Inc., said the Kentucky track is a “good fit,” especially with its recent addition of Instant Racing.
“I don’t think that it’s something that will take off overnight,” he said. “It’s going to take some work on our part to make that happen.”
Instant Racing machines resemble slot machines and allow gamblers to wager on previously run but unidentified horse races.
Ellis Park recently opened a parlor with 187 Instant Racing machines, becoming the second Kentucky track to try the venture. Kentucky Downs, at Franklin near the Tennessee border, began offering Instant Racing last year.
Geary said he’s been pleased with the initial response to the new gaming at his track.
His new partner has experience juggling racing and gaming at its Saratoga Casino and Raceway in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Besides the harness track there, the operation features video lottery terminals and electronic table games as well as a nightclub and restaurants.
The Saratoga group would like to see more live racing at Ellis Park, Hartman said.
“We think there’s a way to make racing and gaming work together to the benefit of each other,” he said.
Race days and purses have expanded at the group’s home track in New York.
In 2012, the Saratoga harness track will host 170 days of live racing for purses totaling $15 million, said Rita Cox, a marketing executive at Saratoga Casino and Raceway. In 2003, the last full year prior to the arrival of video lottery machines, the track had 129 days of racing for purses totaling $2.9 million, she said.
A portion of the Instant Racing revenue will go into bolstering prize money for horsemen racing at Ellis Park, Geary and Hartman said.
Page 2 of 2 - “I think the horsemen are going to see a nice pop in purses driven by Instant Racing,” Hartman said.
Ellis Park’s live racing meet generally runs from early July to Labor Day weekend. The track had 29 live racing dates this summer, down from 31 last year. Attendance was up slightly this year, and on-track betting totals were up 7 percent, Geary said.
The track’s next new attraction will be a restaurant expected to open in a couple of weeks.
Geary said he met with a few dozen groups that expressed interest in gaining a share of Ellis Park before choosing the Saratoga group.
The agreement includes options enabling the newcomers to eventually acquire half or all of Ellis Park.
“We want to have a greater stake in the business going forward,” Hartman said. “We don’t know that we’ll exercise any of them or all of them. A lot of it’s going to depend upon what’s happening at the time we have to make that decision.”
The group sees Ellis Park as a good investment, even though Kentucky tracks have made no headway in trying to persuade state lawmakers to allow slot machines at the tracks, he said.
The tracks say revenue from expanded gaming would allow them to bolster prize money and attract more horses. They say the state known as the world’s thoroughbred capital is losing horses to tracks in other states that feature slot machines at the tracks.
“If it doesn’t get there, then so be it,” Hartman said of the prospects for expanded gaming at Kentucky tracks. “But we think there is a real benefit to expanded gambling in Kentucky.”
After years of uncertainty about its survival, Ellis Park is now on more solid footing financially, Geary said.
“Now we’re going to start going on the offense,” he said. “We’re initiating that with our Instant Racing machines. And it should help our bottom line going forward. But most importantly it will help our purse money and attract more horses.”