For the first time in track history, Churchill Downs will start its 2011 spring meet and Kentucky Derby Week in prime time. The first day of Churchill Downs’ 39-day spring meet April 30 will take place at night under the lights with the first of 11 live races scheduled for 6 p.m. ET. The first-time event is simply billed as “Opening Night.”
Local NBC affiliate WAVE-3 has planned a live one-hour broadcast around the event from 9-10 p.m. ET, and will televise two races, including the featured The Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial (gr. III, race 8, 9:39 p.m. ET)--the final race on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) that could produce a starter in the Run for the Roses on the following Saturday.
“We created this new stand-alone event to help properly kickoff and celebrate Kentucky Derby Week and the return of live racing to Churchill Downs for the spring meet,” said Churchill Downs racetrack president Kevin Flanery in a release. “Over the past two years, we’ve had exciting results by presenting special and unique nighttime racing experiences for our core customers, casual patrons, and entertainment-seekers. This exciting new opening night event is truly Louisville’s gala. The people of Louisville and the entire Kentuckiana region love the Derby, they love to dress up, and they love a good party. We intend to deliver that to them.”
Many of the elements that made the eight previous night racing programs at Churchill Downs an on-track hit will be showcased with added twists. E! News anchor Giuliana Rancic and her husband, first-year Apprentice winner Bill Rancic, will be on hand for red carpet arrival interviews and to emcee the evening’s festivities. DJ Clinton Sparks will spin tunes in the paddock and perform his hit single “My Favorite DJ is.” Also, Kentucky’s born and raised designer to the stars, Bradley Picklesimer, will set the mood with the evening’s décor.
“The suggested wardrobe for opening night is cocktail chic and fashionable headwear, much like Oaks and Derby, is encouraged,” said Casey Cook, Churchill Downs’ vice president of brand development and marketing, in a statement.
Churchill Downs experimented with night racing in 2009 and permanent lights were added to the 147-acre facility in 2010. Its eight nighttime programs over the last two years--the perfect blend of an upscale night on the town with the excitement of thoroughbred racing-- have essentially tripled the on-track attendance and doubled the on-track wagering handle compared to afternoon programs previously staged on those dates, according to a release.
In addition to Opening Night, Churchill Downs will stage four “Downs After Dark” night racing programs in 2011--three over the final three Fridays of the spring meet on June 17, June 24, and July 1, and one date during the fall meet on Friday, Nov. 19.
A red glass chandelier structure will apex over the Aristides Garden on Opening Night to give the Churchill Downs paddock area the look and feel of an upscale night club. Also, there will be free-seating options, specialty bars and food stations, colorful buntings, mood lighting, spotlights, and seasonal greenery.
There’ll be red carpet entrances at Gates 10 and 17, plus paparazzi photographers, Hollywood-style lights, and DJs inside the gates to greet guests when admission gates open at 4 p.m. ET.
Music at the track will be showcased throughout the evening. To set the tone for the party, musicians Off The Hook will perform on the paddock stage between live races from 4-9 p.m. ET. Also, there will be music for VIP guests on the Clubhouse “Bubble Balconies,” a private party that will showcase champagne cocktails and an atmosphere accented by bubble machines.
At 9 p.m., DJ Clinton Sparks takes over turntable on the paddock stage until closing time at midnight. Sparks is the E! News music correspondent, creator, host, and DJ of the terrestrial radio show “Smash Time Radio;” and host and DJ of the “Sirius XM Shade 45 Satellite Radio” uncensored Hip Hop show of the same name. He might be best known as the multi-platinum producer/songwriter for Akon, Pitbull, Ludacris, Tyrese, Rick Ross, The Game, Bun B, Soulja Boy, Leighton Meester, Plies, T-Pain, and The Notorious B.I.G.
Cover charge (general admission) to Opening Night and all Downs After Dark events is $10. Holders of shareholders passes or horsemen licenses, as well as select Twin Spires Club members (Platinum, Gold, Silver, and Bronze members only) and children age 12 and under (when accompanied by an adult) will be admitted free of charge.
Reserved ticket packages for Opening Night and all spring meet events are available for purchase online at Tickets.ChurchillDowns.com. Customers also can call the Churchill Downs switchboard at (502) 636-4400.
Limited dining packages in Skye Terrace 6 remain available for $59.50 and include a Chef Table dinner, a climate-controlled indoor reserved seat, viewing balcony, and an official program. Meanwhile, the outdoor third-floor box seats are going fast. They are on sale for $20 and include general admission, a box seat in the third-floor clubhouse, and an official program.
Churchill Downs will be open early for simulcast wagering on the second floor of the clubhouse on opening night. General admission will be its regular price of $3 from 11:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. at Gate 17.
Those attending Opening Night are encouraged to arrive early to secure on-site parking and avoid traffic delays. All on-property parking lots will open at 3 p.m. and space is available on a first-come, first-served basis (free in the Longfield Avenue lot). Typically, all lots are filled to capacity by post time for the second race. Churchill Downs will offer free parking and shuttle service from Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium starting at 4 p.m. There will be free round-trip shuttle service throughout the evening with drop off and pick up at Gate 1.
Following Opening Night, Churchill Downs will be dark Sunday, May 1 and Monday, May 2. Kentucky Derby week racing will resume Tuesday, May 3 and continue through Kentucky Derby Day on Saturday, May 7. Post time on May 3-5 will be 12:45 p.m. ET. The first race on Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby days will be 10:30 a.m. ET.
According to Churchill, more than 210,000 horseplayers and entertainment-seekers have attended the track’s eight special nighttime programs since June 2009. Just less than 90,000 fans attended three experimental programs under temporary lights in 2009, and an average of 27,139 attended four night racing programs under permanent lights last spring.