HENDERSON, Ky. (Monday, Sept. 4, 2017) — It came down to the next-to-last race of the 2017 Ellis Park meet that ended Monday. But 2016 meet-leader Steve Asmussen repeated as trainer champion, edging 2015 winner Brad Cox 18 wins to 17.
Jockey Corey Lanerie on Sunday secured his fourth Ellis Park riding title with his closest pursuer, Jon Court, riding West Virginia Derby winner Colonelsdarktemper at Parx Racing in Pennsylvania Monday. Lanerie was blanked on the closing card, but it didn’t matter with his 35-27 cushion over Court. Jack Gilligan, who at age 20 had a breakthrough meet, finished third with 16 victories.
Mongo Racing — a partnership of trainer J.R. Caldwell and Dr. Ruston Jennings — earned its first owners title anywhere, winning six of 14 starts, with a second and three thirds. Dwight Pruett and Kay Stillman tied for second, both going 4 for 11.
Asmussen wins trainers’ race at the wire
Asmussen might have set an Ellis record with 107 starters. In addition to the 18 victories, he had 19 seconds and 15 thirds. Cox went 17-10-4 in 49 starts, including victories in the Ellis Park Turf (Inveniam Viam), Grade 3 Groupie Doll (Tiger Moth) and Ellis Park Debutante (Kelly’s Humor). It was very close in purse earnings, Asmussen also nipping Cox, $479,697 to $477,471.
Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg had a superb meet himself to finish third in wins, going 13 for 36.
The trainer’s title was nerve-wracking on a couple of fronts for Christy Hamilton, who has overseen Asmussen’s Ellis operation for the past two years. First, she vowed before the season that the barn would repeat. Second, she’s very close to her counterpart running Cox’s Ellis division.
“It was a nail-biter,” Hamilton said. “Tessa Bisha and I are best friends. We’re always happy for each other when the other one wins. Being pitted against your best friend was a little difficult. But in the end we prevailed, and I could not be more thrilled right now.”
Asmussen and Cox both ran three horses Monday, including both in the seventh and eighth race. When neither won the eighth, Asmussen clinched his second Ellis title, and it didn’t matter that his first-time starter in the ninth and final race finished nowhere.
A year ago, Asmussen went 16 for 73, earning $390,521.
“This was a lot tougher meet,” Hamilton said. “There were a lot more horses stabled on the grounds. There were a lot more horses running in the races. The quality of horses this meet at Ellis Park was a lot better quality even than we saw last year. Some of the 2-year-olds we saw last year, you’re going to see their names come up big in the future. Ellis Park really has something to show for itself.”
Mongo: ‘Favorite track in the world right now’
Mongo’s owner’s title was a tremendous feat given that the partnership currently has only five of the 14 horses in Caldwell’s Kentucky stable.
This is Caldwell’s first full year in Kentucky. He came to Churchill for the spring meet a couple of years ago and went on to run a couple of horses at Ellis before heading back to the southwest. Now he wants to make Kentucky and Churchill Downs his main base.
“Kentucky is where the heart of the racing is,” said Caldwell, who is stabled at Churchill Downs and shipped over on race days to Ellis Park. “It’s been a fantastic meet. We’ve come here with a purpose to run here in Kentucky and focus on all the Kentucky tracks. It set up really well for us, as a stable and an ownership.”
With a handful of horses, you don’t go into a meet expecting to win the owner’s title, he said.
“You just have to let that stuff fall together and happen for you,” Caldwell said. “There’s no way to plan and say, ‘We’re going to do this; we’re going to do that.’”
The key was Political Justice going what proved a meet-best 3 for 3: two races for $4,000 claiming and then when in for the $40,000 claiming price in an allowance/optional-claiming race. Caldwell put the horse in the race to give it enough entries to be used for his other horse, Manhattan Mischief, who broke slowly and finished third.
“When we won a race and got to three or four races, I started looking and thought, ‘This is legitimately a good shot,’” Jennings said of the title. “I knew we had a couple of live horses. Then when we pulled off a stunner with an allowance win with a $4,000 claimer, that pretty solidified it. I knew we were in good shape then. I’ll tell you, in the last three or four years, that’s the most shocking win I’ve ever had.”
Jennings, a physician from Granbury, Texas, near Fort Worth, was at Ellis Park for the first time.
“As an owner, being in Kentucky for the first time, being at this meet for the first time, I can’t ask for more,” he said. “It’s been awesome.”
Of being at a track with soybeans, corn and pumpkins in its infield, he said:
“It’s different, but I like it. It’s very homey. It’s different from Churchill and some of those tracks. Hey, when you win an owner’s title, this is a great place to be. This is my favorite track in the world right now.”
Lanerie needs to top 2016 meet to beat Court
Besides 35 wins, Lanerie led the meet with 27 seconds and 20 thirds in a meet-high 146 starts, as well as purse earnings of $764,631. Court’s 27 victories this year would have won the title last year, when Lanerie topped the standings at 26.
“It’s great. Winning races and winning titles never gets old. No matter where you’re at, you like to be winning,” Lanerie said. “This colony has gotten tougher and tougher over the years. To still walk away with the most wins, it’s a pretty special feeling.
“It’s great with all the fans here,” he said, adding of the large crowds on the meet’s last two days, “Especially on days like today and yesterday, it’s good to win and be leading rider here. It’s a fun meet here, and the quality of horses have really seemed to have gotten good here this year. Hopefully we can find a Derby horse or an Oaks horse that passes through here. They’ve done it before. So they’re out here for sure.”
In fact, while Lanerie did not ride Lookin At Lee when that Asmussen-trained colt won a maiden race and the Ellis Park Juvenile last summer, he was in the saddle when Lee was second in the Kentucky Derby.
“Lookin At Lee ran through here, got his seasoning here and went on to be a really good horse,” Lanerie said. “So they’re here. We just have to try to get on them.”