Ellis Park meet to feature deep jockey colony
With the return of 10-time Churchill Downs leading rider Corey Lanerie, Ellis Park features its most accomplished jockey colony as the 94-year-old western Kentucky track runs its 2016 meeting July 2-September 5.
Lanerie, also a two-time meet leader at Keeneland, won the 2010 Ellis riding title and tied for top honors in 2013 before riding the past two summers at Saratoga. He's part of an all-star jockey lineup that includes Robby Albarado, Brian Hernandez Jr., six-time Ellis champ Jon Court, 2015 titlist Didiel Osorio, Ellis stalwarts Francisco Torres, Jesus Castanon, Miguel Mena and Marcelino Pedroza, along with Joe Rocco Jr., Channing Hill, Chris Landeros and former Arlington Park kingpin James Graham, who will ride at Ellis regularly for the first time.
Lanerie, who finished second in the 2016 Preakness (G1) aboard Cherry Wine, could easily earn his 4,000th career victory this summer at Ellis.
"You get to stay home," said Lanerie, who lives in Louisville and has a clear lead in the current Churchill Downs standings. "The purses are going to be even better this year. I like Ellis. I like to win, too, and it's a little easier than Saratoga going against the heavy-heads. We're going to stay home and try to win some races there. The cost of living at Saratoga is just so much. I can stay here and go up for a couple of stakes there and come out cheaper.
"A lot of good two-year-olds come out of Ellis Park. And it could be because they don't hook the heavy-heads quicker, early in their career, so they maybe last a little longer without the pressure on them. It's a good meet, three days a week. It's good for your mind, like a working vacation. It does my body good. Ellis Park will have a deep riding colony this year because of the purses."
With the exception of Saratoga-bound Julien Leparoux and Florent Geroux, most of Churchill Downs' riding colony will ride regularly at Ellis Park.
"It's an extension of the Churchill Downs jockey colony," said Court, the only jockey to win the Ellis crown five straight years, 1998-2002, plus 2009. "The purses are going to be better and you'll see a stronger, deeper level of talent this season. You're going to have a whole list of Grade 1-proven riders. That's going to bring a better product to the public."
"I like that, because it's easier to ride a good race when you ride with good riders," agreed Rocco, who won last year's Groupie Doll (G3) aboard Call Pat. "It's easier to step your game up. It's easier to anticipate what a good rider is going to do, because you can count on them to do the right thing. There are benefits to it being a tougher riding colony."
Albarado, with 4,885 wins through June 22, will soon clip the $200 million purse threshold, which only 13 riders have ever achieved. He was the regular rider of 2007-208 Horse of the Year Curlin and 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft, and has won major races all over the country, including the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1) and Arlington Million (G1) among his 35 Grade 1 triumphs and 199 graded-stakes victories. His seven riding titles at New Orleans' Fair Grounds are a record in the modern era. Albarado also has won four Keeneland riding titles and one at Churchill Downs.
"People are looking for a good place to develop their two-year-olds, horses who can compete back here at Churchill Downs in the spring," said Albarado, who rode regularly at Ellis Park for the first time last summer after spending years at Saratoga or Arlington Park. "And I think a lot will go through Ellis Park. I was on horses there last year that I thought could compete at Saratoga, and now you've got the purses raising up.
"I've got a farm here, my family here. It makes sense for me to stay here. Before I might ride at Ellis once a year. But I rode a lot of allowance races, maiden special weight races last year. I enjoy it. I see a future where it becomes tougher and tougher. There are guys with nice babies who are staying here to develop them. You have to run so hard at Saratoga at such a young age. Everything slows down (at Ellis); it's not a rush thing."
Hernandez, the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice jockey of 2004, earned his first Grade 1 victory when Fort Larned captured Saratoga's 2012 Whitney H. (G1) en route to taking the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1). He is the regular rider of multiple stakes-winners Eagle and Ahh Chocolate. Hernandez won the 2012 Ellis riding title, beating Lanerie by a single victory, and led all jockeys last year in purse earnings at the track.
Court also could achieve the 4,000-win landmark this summer at Ellis as the two-time Arkansas Derby (G1) winner is riding as well as ever at age 55.
"I've been just Steady Jon," Court said last year. "Like that old horse, you see the stars come and go, and that old hard-knocking horse who carries the barn is still there -- reliable. That's been my claim to fame, reliability."
(Corey Lanerie photo: Coady Photography)