Churchill Downs wants out of demon darkness

Apr 7, 2009 5:08 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

Track needs lighting for night racing

In Meredith Wilson’s great 1957 musical "The Music Man," Harold Hill warns the citizens of River City, "Ya Got Trouble." He sings,

Then beer from a bottle

And the next thing

Your son is playin’ for money

In a pinch-back suit

And list’nin to some big out-a-town Jasper

Hearin’ him tell about horse race gamblin’

Not a wholesome trottin’ race, no!

But a race where they sit down right on the horse!

Like to see some stuck-up jockey boy

Sittin’ on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil?

Well I should say.

Louisville, Kentucky, is still a River City today, and last week the good burghers awoke to hear the Harold Hills out at Churchill Downs tellin’ them they were thinking of puttin’ in lights for night racing, just like the jockey boys behind old Dan Patch.

For the last 70 years in American horse racing, the days have belonged to the runners and the nights to the trotters and pacers. Not by design, but by necessity. The thoroughbreds had raced in afternoons before 1940, and when the great Long Island criminal lawyer George Morton Levy decided night harness racing would work he had no intention of going head-to-head with Belmont Park or Aqueduct. So he claimed the nights, and it has been that way since.

Well, not entirely.

There have been sporadic tries of the runners at night, one of particular interest at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, California, where Friday nights were installed in an effort to draw younger crowds. It helped their handle, but not enough to save the track, which now faces the end of racing and demolition.

Churchill Downs, of course, hosts the world’s best known race for 3-year-olds, the Kentucky Derby, up for a 135th renewal this year.

But the track, which spent $121 million four years ago to modernize, now would like to reinvigorate its non-Derby business, which is lagging, and would like to fill some of those seats that bring in so much loot on Derby Day.

It is planning on two 11-race programs, on Friday nights like Hollywood Park, on June 19 and 26, and a third on Thursday night, July 2.

They are, their senior director of communications Darren Rogers says, going to splash things up with special promotions, which to this corner seems like clouding the crystal ball. Will it be nights or the glitz and giveaways that draw the curious?

Track spokesman John Asher says Churchill planned to install lights in its 2005 reincarnation, but stopped when the budget went into the $120 millions.

Now they will undergo the expense of temporary lighting, no small matter on a big oval like Churchill, and a multi-million dollar project if they decide the experiment justifies a permanent lighting installation.

It is doubtful if Churchill would have the audacity to ever go all nights, which makes the lighting job even less cost effective.

Thoroughbred trainers will not be pleased. They are up at dawn for training, and given the stretched out time between thoroughbred races they will be racing very late at night. Churchill says it plans to start at 6 p.m. and be done by 11, but that will take acceleration of the between-race intervals.

The harness horsemen are used to this routine, having adapted to it by necessity. It is habit with them, but not with the runners, and a few trainers interviewed after the night announcement were not cheering the decision.

Churchill says it will analyze the results of its costly experiment, and act accordingly.

We can envision some straw-hat Harold Hill gathering the good citizens of Louisville downtown, and warning, as he did in River City, "This is the first big step on the road to the depths of Degradation. Friends, let me tell you what I mean … All week long, your River City youth will be frittern’ away – I say your young men will be frittern’ away – their noontime, suppertime, choretime too" with some stuck-up jocks racing under lights.

The only thing certain is that you won’t see the Kentucky Derby ever raced at night, not in my lifetime and probably not in yours. Trouble in River City will never run that deep.