HENDERSON, Ky. — (Monday, June 19, 2017) — The jockey colony for Ellis Park’s 95th meet, which runs July 1 through Labor Day, is virtually identical to last year. And that’s a good thing.
Ellis Park had its strongest jockey colony ever last season, with Corey Lanerie returning after several summers at Saratoga. The perennial Churchill Downs meet leader joined a robust assembly of jockeys that included Robby Albarado, winner of more than 5,000 races and three times the rider of Horses of the Year; six-time Ellis champion Jon Court, winner of more than 4,000 races; former Eclipse Award winner Brian Hernandez Jr.; Midwest stalwarts Miguel Mena and Joe Rocco Jr., and the up-and-coming Didiel Osorio, winner of the 2015 Ellis crown, and Chris Landeros. Former Chicago kingpin James Graham returned from California to ride at Ellis for the first time in well over a decade, and Channing Hill also became a regular in his first full year in Kentucky.
Resuming his career at Ellis last Aug. 27 after a five-month retirement was three-time Kentucky Derby winner Calvin Borel, now back for the full meet. Borel also is one of three Ellis-based jocks to have won Triple Crown races, with Albarado and Jesus Castanon also winners in racing’s biggest stage.
“It’s worth stopping to really think about — and appreciate — how accomplished the Ellis Park riders are,” said Dan Bork, the Ellis Park racing secretary. “It’s easy to take for granted, but this is one of the best collections of riders in the country. No other professional sport allows such access to its athletes as does horse racing, and Ellis Park’s set-up is particularly well-suited for the fans to interact with jockeys.”
Ellis’ top 10 riders in 2016 each won at least 11 races for the 30-date meet, with Lanerie leading the way with 26, followed by Graham at 23, Mena and Hernandez at 21 and Osorio at 20. All will be back with Ellis as their main summer base, while going out-of-town as their business dictates.
The Ellis colony essentially duplicates the Churchill Downs jockeys minus Julien Leparoux, Florent Geroux and Shaun Bridgmohan, who ride at Saratoga. But Albarado, who used to be a Saratoga regular, says Ellis can prove more productive as far as landing on a good young horse.
“From what I hear on the backside, a lot of people are holding their best 2-year-olds to run at Ellis Park,” said Robby Albarado, who last year rode Albaugh Family Stables’ Not This Time, a 10-length Ellis Park maiden winner who in his next start romped in Churchill Downs’ Iroquois Stakes before finishing second by a head in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. “I renamed it Saratoga South because of all the nice horses to come out of it the last couple of years. Dale Romans has quite a few. Kenny McPeek has quite a few. I’m excited. I’m ready for it. It’s a safe racetrack, first of all. Second, I think they don’t have to run as hard as they would to break their maiden at Saratoga. So it’s a good learning experience for horses and they don’t have to be at their peak learning potential. I think every year it will be tougher and tougher.
“I enjoy the fans at Ellis. No matter what day it is, they pack it up and they appreciate the racing. I think they’re going to get a great show this year with the 2-year-olds. I’m not saying it (the jockey colony) is as tough as Saratoga, but we’re got five, six guys who could compete anywhere in the country.”
What other Ellis Park-bound jockeys are saying:
“Ellis Park is good. Obviously I tried Saratoga, and it’s tough,” said Corey Lanerie, who this year finished second in the Kentucky Derby on longshot Lookin At Lee, winner of a maiden race and the $75,000 Ellis Park Juvenile last summer at the track. “Instead of going there and getting down on myself and beating my head in, it’s fun. It’s three days a week, get a lot of golf time and family time and kind of freshen up. We ride a lot of horses at Churchill. So after this meet it’s kind of good to not ride as many, or for sure as many days. I’m fortunate to ride some of the better ones who run there. So hopefully we keep winning and keep good spirits and come back here (at Churchill) ready to go.
“I figure if I have to pay my own way to Saratoga (to ride as needed), it’s cheaper than renting there (for the meet). The stakes horses don’t have to win an $80,000 maiden race at Saratoga. They can learn and win and do it easier than over there. If they’re that good, they’ll come back and be a stakes horse. Lookin At Lee proved that. Dale Romans has had a bunch of good ones come out of there. It’s a good meet.”
“This year is going to be the same as last year, with Lanerie staying,” said Didiel Osorio, who after earning the 2015 title finished fifth last year with 20 victories, including winning four races on opening day. “Corey is going to try to win the title again, and so am I. It’s a tough colony — a lot of good riders. I hope Corey is out of town a lot.”
“Ellis is a tough meet now, with a lot of guys not going to Saratoga,” said Channing Hill, who in his first Ellis meet won on eight of only 46 mounts. “Especially with the money being good, hopefully it keeps more horses down there. The only thing people aren’t really excited about is driving down there. But once you get down there, it’s a fun time. Every time you go to Ellis you have fun. It feels like a Midwestern meet, where you have some fun. The crowd is enthusiastic. So we’re excited to go. Hopefully our business gets rolling good. Every year good 2-year-olds come out of there. I rode a couple of really nice ones for Dale Romans, a good one for Brendan Walsh last year. Then you see Lookin At Lee going on to be second in the Kentucky Derby. Nobody is shying away from there.”
“Looking forward to it,” said Miguel Mena, whose 21 wins last year tied for third in the Ellis standings. “I know the money is going to be better. The races will have even better horses than last year, which we always do have nice babies and good races going. It seems like this year a lot more people are going to stay, trainers and jocks. I’m excited. It’s going to be a good, competitive meet and I’m looking forward to it. Ellis Park has as good of young horses as anywhere. I rode Lookin At Lee to his maiden win there, and he ran second in the Kentucky Derby. I was out of town for his next race (at Ellis), but I thought he was a very nice horse when I rode him, and he didn’t prove me wrong.”
“It had been a long time,” said James Graham, who last summer rode regularly at Ellis for the first time since he was an apprentice rider 13 years earlier. “I enjoyed myself. The purse structure is getting better every year, and I hope it keeps improving, which will keep more quality horses at Ellis. The second-place horses in the Derby and Oaks came out of Ellis.
“With good money for maidens now, people aren’t going to go to New York and run second or third first time out. They’re going to go to Ellis and try to win first time out. It’s a good incentive for the Kentucky trainers and Kentucky jockeys to stay. Because we’re picking up better horses for the whole year if we break their maidens at Ellis — going on into the fall and for the Breeders’ Cup and over Christmas and into the New Year. And then you’re sitting there on one of the choices for the Kentucky Derby or Oaks. So it’s going to be fun.”
“Just like the horses have gotten better the last couple of years, the same goes for the riding colony,” said Brian Hernandez Jr., the 2004 Eclipse Award-winning apprentice jockey who was based at Ellis Park in 2012 when he won his first Grade 1 race at Saratoga on eventual Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned — and was back riding at Ellis the next day. “It’s gotten better. Now with the way Kentucky Downs is and the September meet at Churchill, more people want to stay at Ellis. It’s making it to where it’s easier for everyone to stay home. So you’ve got the top riders who want to stay here now rather than going to Saratoga and try to hope for something lucky. You get some really good 2-year-olds coming out of Ellis. You’re seeing a lot of trainers now running their 2-year-olds at Ellis to see where they are at with them. You’ve got the September meet here (at Churchill) and go right into Keeneland. It’s three days a week and it’s nice to be home with the family most of the week.”
“It’s good; it’s exciting. It’s most exciting with the younger horses, because the last few years they’ve been turning out to be so good, with Breeders’ Cup horses,” said Chris Landeros, whose 18 wins tied for sixth in the standings with Albarado. “We’re getting a lot more attention. Look at Runhappy (the 2015 sprint champion who ran at Ellis). I see it as a working vacation, but it’s starting to get pretty serious. A lot of people are skipping Saratoga. It’s no slouch; it’s tough at Ellis. It’s not easy. Here, you can keep your every-day business and keep it going. It also helps for Kentucky Downs, those turf horses. I love Ellis. It’s like a working vacation three days a week.”