A Break With Tradition Not on My Agenda--Yet

June 13, 2012

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Night racing is not new to American Thoroughbred racing.  The experiments in night programs, particularly as they are presented at Churchill Downs, represent an important break with tradition, could signify an important change in the presentation of the sport.  Yet it’s difficult to see who benefits in the long run and at what cost.

My career started as a substitute announcer at a track then called Latonia, but now called Turfway Park. Performances at night have continued on weeknights at the northern Kentucky track over these many years and it’s hard to quantify what difference they have made.  Night racing was the staple for years at Meadowlands, for both Thoroughbred and harness racing.  At both Latonia and Meadowlands night thoroughbred racing was the norm, particularly on weekdays, but never really gave an important boost to the sport.  As a matter of fact there were many who discounted the results of night programs, especially as stakes-level competition was concerned, since it brought about such changes in the schedules of both horses and humans as a side effect.

Arlington Park took on night racing in the late 60s and ran into the predictable bundle of hurdles.  Arlington’s boss in those days was Marj Everett, a very opinionated and somewhat cranky racing veteran, who believed that racing had become stodgy and uprepared to make the kind of changes it needed in order to improve its standing in the sports world.  Although I personally had a bad experience with Mrs. Everett, I was impressed with the case she made for night racing.  Unfortunately she couldn’t sell her case to the people who put on the show, the horsemen.  Ultimately the public fell out of love with the concept, too.  I was too young to understand all the implications such a change might mean.

So dramatic was the change that for the first evening performance ever at Arlington, the stakes race, the American Derby, was re-scheduled as the first race on the card so that it could be raced in daylight.  Fast Hilarious won that year’s American Derby, the only major stakes event I remember being held as the first race on a card.

This weekend Churchill will present its latest version of “Downs After Dark.” The Churchill experiment, which is conducted on three Saturdays in June this year (June 2, 16, and 30)  features plenty of music and other attractions to lure young and new fans to the sport which has made Louisville famous.  Since most young people spend weekend nights out on the town, Churchill put together a program to make it the place to go and be seen on Saturdays in June this year.

What distinguishes it this week is the quality of racing and its long-range perception in racing.  Those who feel that day racing primarily plays to the aged and unemployed believe that the real chance for racing to grow is to offer it at a different time.  Arlington, which long since abandoned night racing, requested night racing dates once again this year and was given the option for three days.  When the request was met with conditions they couldn’t handle, the north Chicago track passed on the chance to race at night again.  The stated biggest hurdle was the $1.5 or so necessary for the re-installation of lights at Arlington and how to pay for them.

Churchill began its program of an occasional night racing card in 2009 and has found exceptional response to the program as a whole.  On-track business was boosted.  While the mutuel handle took an initial hit, since the crowd contained many newbies not prepared to spend on horses, they did spend big on food, beverage and other money-makers for the track, which made the total experience a success.

Churchill loves to tout the “Downs After Dark” as a great combination of upscale cuisine, fashion, style, music and entertainment,  yet this event remains in the testing phase.  What was once a Friday night event has been shifted to Saturdays this year and this coming Saturday will feature four graded stakes races, headed by the $400,000 Stephen Foster Handicap.  There are always featured colors at the night racing productions, this week’s being gold, amber, orange and purple and there will be an overriding theme highlighting the Middle East.  The stakes being run are the Matt Winn, for three-year-olds at a mile-and-a-sixteenth; the Regret, for three-year-old fillies at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf and the Fleur de Lys, for older fillies and mares at a mile-and-an-eighth, in addition to the Stephen Foster.

What impact all of the surrounding hoopla will mean to the reception of the major stakes to be run is hard to figure.  The Stephen Foster will present an excellent group of older runners, including Oaklawn star Alternation, winner of all three of his Oaklawn starts this year, including the Oaklawn Handicap, and a host of his major challengers for honors in the older horse category.  In theory, this should be a no-brainer.

However, traditionalists will have some difficulty in taking the races as seriously, since they are raced at night.  Those traditionalists never really put much stock in graded races at the Meadowlands and may treat the Churchill races in the same fashion on Saturday.

I wouldn’t bank on night racing getting a real foothold on the American scene for some time.  I am aware that the promotions which accompany the program at Churchill on Saturday nights are very expensive and cut severely into the bottom line which gauges success to everything done at Churchill.  The fact that the entire program of night racing, with all its accompanying promotions, was moved to Saturday and none left for Friday, tells me that the brass at the Twin Spires oval are not entirely convinced.  That Arlington passed on any night racing because of the cost of lights, takes my guess one step further.

There are plenty of people who feel otherwise, but I suspect no matter how you dress up, you are who you are.  Racing has long been a daytime sport because of its color and pageantry.  The tries to take those elements into weekend night racing to attract and enhance the local audience has not been the slam dunk its supporters thought it would be.

I work on Saturday afternoons, so it’s unlikely I’ll see the Churchill program at all this Saturday.  I’ll look for replays of the Stephen Foster over the Internet on Sunday, but I’ll anxiously await the time when that field of horses runs in a more traditional daytime spot.  As far as I know night racing has no future at Oaklawn.  The time of year when Oaklawn races normally produces weather conditions unsuitable for even considering racing at night.  We have the one nighttime activity which appears weatherproof, gaming.  As long as that element of Oaklawn continues to thrive, there is no need to even mention night racing as a realistic option.  However I learned a long time ago, never say “never”.

Don’t look for me on Saturday night Simulcasts at Oaklawn, but enjoy the races from Churchill, if you are a Saturday night racing fan.  It should make for a more interesting set of Simulcast races.  We’ll see what develops at Churchill on Saturday and how it compares or contrasts with its other Saturday efforts.

The future for racing at Churchill Downs, as well as the other companies it owns, could rest largely on the numbers produced by this year’s experiments.

I have my doubts.

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