Night racing at Churchill Downs on June 19.

Night racing at Churchill Downs on June 19.

Reed Palmer

Night Racing at Churchill a Big Success

A crowd of more than 28,000 filled Churchill Downs.

In Hollywood, it's, "Lights. Camera. Action." In Louisville now, it's, "Lights. Horses. Action."

For the first time in its 135-year history, Churchill Downs raced under the lights on June 19. And based on the turnout, the experiment was an overwhelming success.

A crowd of 28,011 turned out for the Louisville racetrack’s historic "Downs After Dark" night program, nearly four times the average for a typical Friday afternoon crowd. John Asher, vice president of communications at Churchill, said the goal for the evening was “about 12-to-15,000,” but that number was surpassed well before dark.

Night Racing at Churchill Downs Slide Show
Night Racing at Churchill DownsNight Racing at Churchill Downs

First post was 6 p.m. EDT and less than an hour later the main parking lot was full, prompting police to direct fans to nearby Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The slight inconvenience, along with the 90 degree-plus weather and $10 admission charge, did not stop fans from piling in.

Once inside, they were treated to an atmosphere that resembled a party as much as it did a racetrack. A pair of red carpets greeted patrons who entered through the main gates, which led to a jam-packed paddock area that included a live band, beer garden, and lounge complete with couches. The atmosphere was festive thanks in part to a younger-than-usual crowd, many of them in their 20s.

The seats in the grandstand and apron area were filled early in the evening, as were the sold out suites in Millionaires Row that treated those willing to plunk down $150 for a six-course dinner. Another live band played Cuban music on one of the mood-lit balconies and people danced the night away under the Twin Spires. Several of the dining room suites were also sold out.

“It exceeded all of our expectations,” said Asher. “There was a lot of buzz during the last few days, so we expected a nice turnout, but this is very gratifying. We provided an experience that appealed to many people. There is a little something different for everyone.”

The first seven races of the night were contested during daylight and twilight, but at the start of the 8th race the temporary lights were put to full use after the sun went down. A huge roar erupted from the crowd when the gates opened at 9:40 p.m. for the first “official” night race, and many fans cheered loudly when 7-5 favorite Final Copy roared down the stretch to take the race. Robby Albarado rode the winner.

“I'm overwhelmed by the crowd," Albarado said. “This was a big night for not only Churchill Downs, but horse racing. This kind of solidifies what racing is about.”

Mine That Bird trainer Chip Woolley added: “I thought for the first time, they did an awesome job. It was a great, great deal. I got here about 7 o’clock and when I turned the corner driving in I saw all the people on the balconies and it looked just like Derby Day.”

Three more races were held under the lights during the 11-race program, with final post well after 11 p.m. Fans didn’t seem to mind the late hour.

“Horses and happy hour; It's an awesome combination,” said impressed fan Jennifer Powell.

The major complaint from fans seemed to be the long food and beer lines that were everywhere. Some complained of having to wait almost a half-hour to be served. Churchill officials were well aware of the problem.
“The concession lines were very disappointing,” admitted Asher. “There was no excuse for that to have happened. The good news is that we have two more shots at this (June 26 and July 2), and you can bet that we’ll have it resolved for next time.
“Obviously, were going to sit down this week and talk about the entire night; what worked and what didn’t. We’ll assess all aspects of the night and try to make it even better. But I think the main thing is that we attracted new fans, many of which would not have come to the racetrack without this type of atmosphere. Hopefully, they will come back next week.
“Anyone who doesn’t think horse racing is a critical part of the state of Kentucky should have been here tonight.”
Asher said it will take an “evaluation process” to determine whether night racing will become a regular part of Churchill’s meet.