It wasn't until after the Stephen Foster Handicap last Saturday that John Asher got his first look at the temporary lights set up around the Churchill Downs oval.
And it wasn't until then that the magnitude of the fixtures fully sank in for the track's vice president of communications.
"The first time I saw them was last Saturday and the whole stretch was lit up," Asher said. "I walked out into section 124 and it was so bright down there, I guarantee if you had your program with the small print, you could have read it better than if you were in Millionaire's Row.
"It's rare to be in a facility that has been in business for 134 years and experience something totally new."
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Churchill Downs will indeed have a milestone to add to its history books Friday when it hosts the first of three special night racing cards under the lights.
Friday's card will feature 11 races with a first post of 6 p.m. and the final race slated to go off at 11:11 p.m. Other "Downs After Dark" programs are scheduled for Friday, June 26 and Thursday, July 2.
The idea of adding lights to the historic facility has been talked about for years and — in a time when the racing business is struggling across the board — Churchill Downs hopes this experiment helps in the ongoing quest to attract more fans.
Among the offerings for the track's inaugural night card are live music in the paddock area between races, extended happy hour and two Super Hi-5 wagers.
"There has been a lot of buzz in the community where people who have never mentioned a horse to me before are excited about this," Asher said. "I don't think we have any preconceived notions of what we need to see (for it to be a success). We're going to look at everything. We're just going to see what the results are, see what the fans say, what the horsemen say.
"If this makes a difference, if it brings in some fans, maybe brings back some old fans and appeals to the simulcast market, we'll be happy."
Though the temporary lighting system supplied by Iowa-based Musco Lighting received positive feedback from trainers and jockeys when used during early-morning training hours Monday and Tuesday, the $10 admission Churchill is charging for the initial Friday card — $7 more than the usual general admission price — has received mixed reviews.
Asher acknowledged some have questioned the increase, but said the higher admission is due in part to the added features the track is offering for the evening.
"For one thing there are a lot of extra things and a lot of entertainment options going on that wouldn't be there on a normal day," he said. "Clearly we've had some push back on that because it's not a number they're used to but we really believe when the fans come out, they're going to enjoy themselves. It should be a night that just crackles when you open the door."
General admission does drop to $6 for the next two night-racing cards, and Churchill does offer a $15 pass good for admission on all three nights. Admission for Twin Spires club members is still just $1.
While tracks such as Turfway Park have held night racing for years, Churchill's late-night card does present some challenges for horsemen.
With the last race going off well after 11 p.m., some trainers won't finish cooling out horses until after midnight — making for a rough turnaround to be back at the barns early the following morning.
"I do think they stretched (the races) out a bit because even at Turfway, you're done by 9 or 9:30 p.m.," said trainer Buff Bradley, who has a horse entered in the 11th race Friday and is working some of his horses Friday morning instead of Saturday to adjust to the late night. "That's the part I didn't much care for. But, it's always good to try something new. I think they'll have a big crowd, especially for the first night because people will want to say they were there."
Even if the trio of night cards are deemed a success by Churchill, the track would have to examine the economic viability of the venture before considering whether to make the lights a permanent fixture.
"It would have to make financial sense because it would not be an inexpensive thing to do," Asher said. "If you make an investment, there has to be the prospect of a return."