Monday, June 22, 2009

Racing goes prime time at Churchill

By JEFFREY McMURRAY, Associated Press Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)—Put on the evening gown. Take off the sunglasses. For the first time in the 135-year history of Churchill Downs, the horses charged down the stretch under the lights.

In an event dubbed as “Downs After Dark,” the Kentucky Derby host track transformed the Twin Spires into a nightclub of sorts on Friday. A live band pumped energetic music through the paddock, where patrons could lounge on a couch, sip on a mojito and nibble on a kabob while watching the horses prepare to race.

The paddock, even more than the grandstand, was the place to be on this night, unless you had scored a ticket to the dance club upstairs or sprung for a luxurious five-course dinner in the suite known as “Millionaire’s Row” during the Derby. Churchill listed the attendance of 28,011, far above the average from a typical race day.

“You’re going to have a great time here regardless, but this just brings a different atmosphere,” Jennifer Howell said. “Horses and happy hour. It’s an awesome combination.”

Although the first several races were run during daylight, temporary lights were illuminating the last ones, including the 11:11 p.m. finale.

Officially, Churchill’s first race after sundown happened at 9:40 p.m., with favorite Final Copy emerging as the winner. Jockey Robby Albarado, a veteran of night racing at Evangeline Downs, said the night racing was nothing new but the raucous crowd provided tremendous energy.

“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.”

Albarado also endeared himself to a new fan, Billy Warrick. Warrick’s name was drawn for a chance to either pocket $100 or place a $1,000 bet on his choice of a winning horse. He chose to gamble and placed his money on Albarado, turning the investment into $2,400.

“I will always bet on Robby,” he said.

Night racing was well received, although it did make for a short night of sleep for the horsemen. Calvin Borel, the jockey who rode Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra, said he had to be at the track by 5 a.m. Saturday for morning workouts. Still, Borel said it’s needed to give the sport a jolt.

“We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do,” Borel said. “Just look at the crowd they’ve got already. It might be all right.”

Racing under the lights, which will take place on a test basis three nights this summer at Churchill, is hardly a foreign concept in the industry. Turfway has done it for four decades, and at the same time Churchill’s race card is going off, night racing will be taking place at tracks from California to Pennsylvania.

Trainer David Vance said he has been a longtime critic of night racing because he believes it hurts tradition and throws off schedules, but he agreed that if the people turn out, it’s all worthwhile.

“If it would help Churchill Downs, I wouldn’t care if they started at midnight,” Vance said.

As for the racing fans, the support was largely resounding. Wayne Wilder was handicapping the day’s second race Friday while relaxing in a padded chair with his foot resting on a matching ottoman.

“Well, I won the first race,” Wilder said. “I guess it must have been the chair"

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