Churchill to make night racing permanent feature

Following a successful night racing experiment during its Spring Meet, Churchill Downs Inc. announced Monday that it will install permanent lights at its flagship track in Louisville.

Churchill Downs held its first-ever night racing events on June 19, June 26 and July 2.

The average attendance each of the three nights was 29,705, with 33,481 in attendance the final evening, bringing the total attendance for the three nights of racing to 89,115.

Officials with the track anticipate the permanent lights will be installed in time for the 2010 Spring Meet.

"We found our racing fans loved the experience, and Churchill Downs is trying new ideas to bring different types of fans to our iconic track, home of the Kentucky Derby," said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs. "The company plans to invest in racing's future despite the troubled economy and reduced handle throughout the industry."

The crowd of 33,481 on the final night is said by track officials to be the largest for the track outside of a Kentucky Oaks, Derby or Breeders' Cup card.

Churchill Downs will be soliciting bids from a range of lighting contractors so the cost of the project has not yet been determined.

Bolstered by entertainment options, happy hour specials and fine dining experiences offered by the track, the first card of night racing drew more than 28,000 patrons.

Despite staffing issues that caused fans to wait in long lines for food, beverages and wagering that night, the crowds continued to turn out the following weekends — a fact that helped convince the track that the lights needed to stay.

"We knew we were onto something after the first night and what was even more gratifying was to see it sustain that aura even after the blunder of the first night," said Darren Rogers, senior director of communications for Churchill Downs. "For three nights this spring, Churchill was the place to be, and it was the biggest party in town."

Flanery indicated Churchill Downs will poll fans and horsemen to assist in determining the optimum mix of day and night racing.

"Our new goal is to figure out how to keep it special, how to keep it unique," Rogers said. "Nothing is off the table at this point, and our major objective this fall and winter will be to decide how often we want to have (night racing)."