Horse racing regulators approve sale of Kentucky racetrack

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A group holding a minority ownership stake in Ellis Park cleared a key hurdle Tuesday in its bid to purchase the western Kentucky racetrack, winning approval from state horse racing regulators who expect a “seamless” transition at the track known for its summer racing.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, meeting in Lexington, approved the venerable track’s sale to the Saratoga Casino and Hospitality Group. The New York-based group acquired a 30 percent stake in the Henderson track in 2012 and now is looking to complete its ownership stake.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. The commission’s consent is necessary for the deal to be finalized.

The commission’s executive director, Marc Guilfoil, said the purchase by an experienced racing group was a good outcome for the track.

“They know the game,” he said in a phone interview. “So there’s not going to be any surprises for them on racetrack ownership. It’s going to be seamless.”

The Saratoga Group indicated it will keep the track’s management team, he said.

Emily Cowles, an attorney representing the Saratoga Group, said her clients appreciate the commission’s approval. The deal, expected to be finalized soon, won’t have any impact on the current live racing meet at Ellis Park, she said. She deferred questions about long-term plans for the track to her client. The Saratoga Group’s parent company also operates a casino and harness track in upstate New York, she said.

The track’s primary owner, Ron Geary, purchased Ellis Park from Churchill Downs Inc. in 2006. Geary, 71, said Tuesday it was time to heed his family’s request to slow down. He said he enjoyed working with the Saratoga Group and turned to it when looking to sell his majority stake.

“It’s been a really fun and fast-moving 12 years,” Geary said in a statement. “I feel like we’ve had some great successes and we’ve brought it a long ways with so many people’s help. I know Saratoga will be focused on continuing the progress.”

Geary said the track is headed toward what looks to be “one of our best operating years in our history.”

Geary took over when the track was recovering from extensive damage caused by a tornado before he became owner. He navigated the track through lean years and guided its expansion into historical racing, where bettors attempt to handicap previously run horse races. The games often are designed to play like slot machines, with the video of a horse race reduced to a few seconds shown in a small window if the player chooses.

Geary launched his track’s historical-racing venture with revenue generated from the deal that gave Saratoga its 30 percent stake in the track.

Revenue from Ellis Park’s historical-racing operation was up 10 percent in the recently ended fiscal year, and revenue in the past three months was 40 percent above the same period a year ago, officials said.

The track is in the midst of its annual summer live racing meet, which continues through Labor Day.

Ellis’ racing season plays a key role in Kentucky’s thoroughbred racing circuit, Guilfoil said.

“They are a bridge that helps keep the horses here in Kentucky year round,” he said.

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