The Ellis Park Race Course, originally Dade Park, was built in 1922 by the Green River Jockey Club. The race track was first named after the famous race starter A. B. “Barrett” Dade, a director and one of the organizers of the Green River Jockey Club.
At the time of purchase, the 204 acres of land, pre-race track development, was the wildest of river bottom land. The original plans were to build a track 1 ½ miles long (as the Green River Jockey Club wanted one of the longest in the nation). Ernest F. Bohme, a Lexington, Ky., architect, assigned to develop the plans for Ellis Park, became confused during the decision making and brought in sketches with a track 3/8 of a mile shorter. Time was growing short, so the original investor decided to go with Bohme’s design.
Although the course was planned and built for Thoroughbreds, its opening race, on Tuesday, October 19, 1922, was a Grand Circuit harness meet. On November 18, 1922 the gates opened for the first Thoroughbred meet. Purses for the entire opening meet shaded $62,000.
During the first meet, several notable horsemen surfaced. The Idle Hour Stock Farm, owned by Colonel E. R. Bradley of Lexington, Ky., raced a large stable at the racetrack and won several races. The farm would ultimately win four Kentucky Derbys.
One trainer, Hanly Webb, was telling local reporters that he was “especially keen” on one of his soon to be two-year-olds. The nearly black yearling, owned by Mrs. Rosa Hoots, was sired by the great stallion Black Toney and produced by the mare Useeit. “I’m thinking of naming the colt ‘Dade Park,’” Hanly reported to The Evansville Courier. Instead Hanly named the colt Black Gold and on May 17, 1924, Black Gold stood a hard drive to win the 50th Kentucky Derby by a half length.
Financial woes plagued the track in the early years, and the Green River Jockey Club went bankrupt. James C. Ellis purchased the facility at a Henderson County, Ky., bankruptcy auction for $35,100 from the Green River Jockey Club, which took a horrible loss at $600,000.
In January of 1937, a monumental Ohio river flood sweeps through the Tri-State. At its zenith, flood waters reach the track’s mezzanine in the main grandstand. Despite considerable flood damage, the track was ready for the opener on Aug. 7.
In 1954 the track was renamed to honor the Dade Parks’ longtime owner, James C. Ellis.
In 1955, the Miller Field in Owensboro was moved to Ellis to become the new Paddock Grandstand and new box seats were added.
When James C. Ellis died in 1956, the torch was passed to his nephew, Lester E. Yeager. Along with his longtime friend and general manager, Charles M. “Brownie” Brown, Yeager ran the facility as track president before passing the baton to Ruth Adkins.
For 25 years his leadership brought more improvements to Ellis Park. In 1957 the film patrol was installed along with a detention barn for post-race testing. By 1960 the new open paddock, walking ring, and jockey quarters were completed. A new clubhouse was built in 1962. Yeager also added on to the clubhouse to accommodate 1,000 more patrons.
Under Mrs. Adkin’s reign, all attendance and mutuel handle records were established. She made countless improvements and expanded race meetings from 29 to as many as 59 days while managing the track during its heyday before it was sold to Roger and Lila Kumar in April 1985.
The Kumars built the Sky Theatre and were proponents to aiding the required passage of legislation that brought innertrack wagering to Kentucky. The inseparable couple sold Ellis Park to Racing Corporations of America in 1989, which, in turn, sold the racetrack along with the Kentucky Horse Center to Churchill Downs, Inc. in 1998.
In November of 2005 a tornado ripped through northwestern Kentucky and southwestern Indiana inflicting significant damage to Ellis Park. The tracks grandstand terrace, adjacent to the main grandstand structure, sustained heavy damage, as did the paddock, jockey’s quarters and infield tote board. The tornado destroyed 11 barns in the stable area and caused light to moderate damage to several others. Three of the 158 horses on the grounds died from injuries suffered in the storm. Despite the damage, the 2006 live meet began as scheduled.
In September 2006, Ron Geary, a local Kentucky businessman, purchased Ellis Park from Churchill Downs, Inc. Under Geary’s leadership, Ellis brought back the July 4 opening date and also brought the 9th edition of the Claiming Crown to Kentucky on August 4, 2007. The first hosting of the Claiming Crown at Ellis Park brought largest handle ever for any Claiming Crown at $4.9 million.
Times and values, of course, have changed since the days of the old carousel paddock, when the starting gate was pulled by mules, horses came and went by train, fans arrived by ferryboat, the judges’ stand was adjacent to the finish line and odds were calculated by hand.
As Ellis Park advances into this new century, the track, despite four changes of ownership, barn fires, floods, and a tornado, maintains the warmth, charm, and simplicity associated with bygone days.