Churchill Downs finds wild success with night-racing experiment

A recent "Downs After Dark" event, on June 17, drew thousands of people. Night racing, begun as an experiment in June 2009, has been a huge success for Churchill Downs, in attendance and in betting
A recent "Downs After Dark" event, on June 17, drew thousands of people. Night racing, begun as an experiment in June 2009, has been a huge success for Churchill Downs, in attendance and in betting

As summer hits its stride, Churchill Downs has a white-hot hit on its hands. The Louisville track's night racing programs culminate Friday with the White Party, kicking off the Fourth of July weekend.

This week's event, the final one of the summer, will now be even more a celebration as the track recovers from a tornado that swept through its stables Wednesday but miraculously didn't hurt any horses or people.

As at previous events, track officials hope to artfully transform previously lackluster summer racing into a prime social experience that Louisvillians and racing fans alike embrace.

Churchill did it by shifting the racing to nights and by bringing in special food, drinks, music and — most of all — atmosphere.

"It's a phenomenon," track spokesman Darren Rogers said. The special "one-off" events have tapped into a demand for entertainment, not just racing.

That has brought more than 250,000 people to the track for 10 special nights of racing.

Advance ticket sales for the Friday night events outpaced last year's requests, Rogers said.

Since the night racing events began as an experiment in June 2009, on-track attendance has tripled and on-track betting has doubled, compared to the afternoon racing previously held on those dates.

The eyebrow-raising numbers come as racing's betting handle as a whole has declined precipitously over the past few years.

The average attendance on a typical Friday afternoon program before was about 7,500; summertime "Downs After Dark" events have averaged almost 28,000 customers.

Night racing has brought its special cachet even to already-popular events, the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby, on the first weekend in May.

In 2010, a crowd of 13,510 for the Saturday before the Kentucky Derby was considered pretty healthy. But this year, Churchill more than doubled that by starting its spring meet with a special "Opening Night" on Saturday evening.

It brought in an unprecedented 38,142 fans, Churchill Downs' largest crowd ever outside of the Derby, Oaks or Breeders' Cup.

And betting soared as well, with on-track wagering up almost $1 million.

Churchill brought back the Downs After Dark events for three final themed Friday nights, ending July 1 with "The White Party."

As Churchill bills it: "A white-hot party in which guests are encouraged to wear an all-white wardrobe. Décor will be white and shimmering silver, mirror balls and mirrors."

Just as on previous Friday nights, the paddock area will be transformed into an "upscale nightclub."

And to remind partygoers that there is racing to bet on, patrons will be randomly selected to play "Bet or No Bet," when they can either keep $100 or place a $1,000 win bet in the next race. The results are broadcast during the race for all to see.

Rogers said that has been a popular crowd feature. "People get booed if they don't take the bet," he said.

All this experimentation has fueled two purse increases for horses running at Churchill, another sign that what the track is doing is working.

"The key for us is to resist the urge to do it more," Rogers said. Too much and it won't be special anymore, but officials want to do everything they can to capitalize on the moment.

"What's the magic number? We know the town is still buzzing about it," he said.

Not a long-term fix?

But it also has given Churchill, and other racetracks, something of a problem. How can they tout their successes without endangering the message that they need slots to survive?

Even as the track raised purses for the second time last week, track president Kevin Flanery was quick to call these short-term solutions at best that cannot counteract the long-term erosion created by gambling-fueled tracks in other states.

Other struggling Kentucky tracks also have hit the money by giving fans something new. And often they are finding that less means much, much more.

Last summer, Ellis Park in Henderson cut back racing to just three days a week for two months. It worked: Squeezing the horses into fewer races kept fields full. Bigger fields attract more betting both on-track and off, which was crucial in keeping purses up as well.

This year's meet, which opens July 2, will follow that model, and track officials expect similar success. Already, more horses are stabled there than in previous years, and more are coming.

A strategy similar to Churchill's helped Turfway Park in Florence to buck the national trend of wagering declines earlier this year.

The track already had tremendous success with a Dollar Friday promotion that drew in Northern Kentucky patrons eager to kick-start their weekends with cheap beer and food and a little music.

This year, Turfway also switched its post time on Saturdays from 1:10 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., introducing "Saturday Night Lights" as a "date night."

"We recognized that many families are busy on Saturday afternoons with children's activities and errands that have to be done on weekends because parents are working," track president Bob Elliston said. "We tried Saturday night racing to see if we could draw them back by fitting better into that lifestyle."

The gamble appears to have paid off.

"We saw definite increases in our food and beverage business and in on-track simulcast handle on Saturday evenings," he said.

Overall, Turfway saw on-track handle increase 6.3 percent, to $5,647,604. All-sources wagering on Turfway races rose 3.3 percent to $95,013,790. On-track handle on all races — Turfway races and those simulcast from other tracks — rose 13.5 percent to $15,689,677 through the end of the live meet on April 3.

Exploring social media

Keeneland, the track that wrote the book on boutique with its brief spring and fall race meets, has built on that with end-of-meeting concerts, and popular Kentucky Oaks-watching and Derby-watching parties at the track.

Keeneland also is experimenting with social media. Its Facebook horse-racing game generated more than 35 million impressions last April and will be back for the fall meet.

And everyone is watching closely to see how another innovation takes off: the mobile betting smartphone app. A version was beta-tested by more than 150 people at the spring meet, the track said.

"We received terrific feedback, along with some suggestions for improvement," Keeneland spokeswoman Julie Balog said, "and we will have a 2.0 version available for all of our customers in October."