Night racing is attempt to draw new crowds
As Kentucky's horse industry struggles, Churchill Downs cut its number of race days. So for the first time in 135 years, the track is trying to jumpstart the industry with night racing. Friday morning, they gave it a practice run.
It's a first at Churchill Downs -- horses and jockeys on the track in the dark, underneath full lights. Gary Hartlage, who trains the horse "Lustful," says, "We kind of breezed her this morning underneath the lights in case we happen to run on Friday night....Everything went good, no complaints, the jockey had no complaints, Jill Johnson was on her, we're happy."
Most of the horses seemed to breeze around the track completely unaware of the power above them or the history they are now a part of. As track spokesman John Asher put it, "In 135 years at an institution like Churchill Downs, you think that you've seen just about everything, but this is a pretty big thing."
A big job calls for a lot of wattage. Officials say the lights now illuminating Churchill Downs are the equivalent to using more than 20,000 60-watt household light bulbs. Crews are working to make sure it's just right.
Asher explains, "They're just making sure that there are no unusual shadows on the track or any tweaking of the location of the lights, or things of that nature that they need to do. And I'm sure our horsemen will have some imput on that as well."
And trainer Hartlage says, "You can just kind of feel the atmosphere with people out here that are not usually out here in the mornings. It's just changing with the times, so I think everybody is pretty happy with it."
Hartlage grew up in the Louisville area watching the face of the Downs change over the years. He says night racing is both good and bad. "It's harder on the help, but if it's for the public and if it brings more people out, then that's what you gotta go with."
Track officials also hope night racing draws a new fan base, bringing people who work during the day out to the track in the evening. "We'll look at what happens these three nights," Asher says. "And we'll see what happens, we'll see how the public embraces the notion of live night racing at Churchill Downs and weigh whether we should put permanent lighting in."
Churchill Downs is using the same lights used at the World Trade Center site after 9/11 and the Olympics in Athens. The first night race is this Friday.