06/23/2009 11:00PM

Another shot at the club crowd

Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
A good-size crowd gathers before dusk last Friday for Churchill's first night card, only to find extensive waits.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Sarah Campion made the 90-minute drive from Lexington, Ky., last Friday night to Churchill Downs to drink beer, spend time with friends, "and watch racing," she said.

Undaunted by the inconveniences she experienced with parking, programs, concessions, and oppressive heat, Campion said she plans to do the same this Friday.

"What better way is there to spend a Friday night?" asked Campion, a University of Kentucky student majoring in agriculture economics.

As a 21-year-old female, Campion embodies the demographic that all racetracks seek. On any given day at any given track, the typical fan is an older man, but the turnout for the inaugural night of racing at Churchill was something remarkably different. A much younger, hipper gathering turned the home of the Kentucky Derby into a veritable nightclub, albeit a sweaty and almost unbearably crowded one.

"Waiting in line isn't very much fun," said Campion. "But they said they were going to put on a lot more staff, so hopefully it'll be much better this time."

Churchill officials have conceded they were badly undermanned for their initial foray into night racing and said they are tripling their staff for this Friday. Meanwhile, they were elated with the interest generated.

Campion said the aesthetics of night racing are particularly appealing to her and other younger people.

"Under the lights, I thought the track looked pretty special," she said. "And you have all the different bands around the place. There's a lot of excitement. Even if they aren't watching racing, you're still getting people out there."

Evenings offer added advantages

Besides the obvious advantage of drawing a younger crowd, there are at least a couple of other pluses to night racing at Churchill.

One is the milder weather in which the horses compete. Temperatures in recent days in the Louisville area have soared into the 90s, with a triple-digit heat index, so waiting until the sun is setting clearly helps to ease those difficult conditions.

Another is the more favorable time slot for simulcast fans in the western sector of the United States. By racing past 11 p.m. Eastern, Churchill is taking its product into the prime-time wheelhouses of the important markets of Las Vegas and California.

"Those are critical markets for our simulcast signal, and having it available in Vegas and California at a more convenient time of day for their fans is clearly to our advantage," said a Churchill spokesman, Darren Rogers.

Lukas out for seventh Debutante

Nine 2-year-old fillies have been entered for the lone stakes to be run here this weekend, the Grade 3, $100,000 Debutante Stakes on Saturday.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, winner of a record six runnings of the Debutante, will start the uncoupled pair of Decelerator and Tidal Pool, while Steve Asmussen, a four-time winner, counters with Kinsolving and Wild Forest Cat in what shapes up as a well-matched race. The other fillies entered in the six-furlong Debutante are Brown Eyed Baby, Henry's Posse, Our Tekela Rose, Phone Marybe, and Send Rose Thecheck.

The Debutante goes as the 10th of 11 races Saturday.

Theriot set to return

Jockey Jamie Theriot will return from a 30-day suspension by riding Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at Indiana Downs in Shelbyville, Ind., said agent Fred Aime.

Theriot will ride the final four-day stretch at Churchill (July 2-5), then ride sparingly at Indiana before leaving for Saratoga, which begins on July 29.

Effective May 30, Theriot was suspended by the Arlington Park stewards for his role in the May 23 spill in which fellow jockey Rene Douglas was critically injured. Theriot was aboard Sky Mom in the Arlington Matron when Douglas went down aboard Born to Be. Theriot subsequently was denied a temporary restraining order by an Illinois circuit court judge when he attempted to have the suspension delayed pending a hearing.

Tough act to follow for Jara

Fernando Jara could win with all eight of his mounts Friday night at Churchill and still not make out nearly as well as he did the last time he won a race here.

Jara, the 21-year-old Panamanian currently based at Arlington, won the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic aboard Invasor on Nov. 4, 2006, his most recent victory at Churchill. Invasor earned $2.7 million for the win.

Jara went winless with four mounts during Kentucky Derby week 2007. This will be his first time back to Churchill since then.

Rider exodus to Iowa

One reason that Jara and his agent, Dennis Cooper, were able to pick up so many mounts on quick notice is because four of the top Churchill jockeys are unavailable because they accepted more lucrative opportunities at Prairie Meadows on Friday night.

Julien Leparoux, Robby Albarado, Shaun Bridgmohan, and Miguel Mena all will travel to Prairie to ride in the $250,000 Iowa Derby on a 10-race card.

Firecracker shaping up nicely

The Churchill racing office could be in for a minor coup with its field for the Grade 2 Firecracker Handicap on July 4 despite the lowest purse for the race - $150,000 - since 1995.

Two horses who won Grade 1 races this spring are in the prospective cast: Mr. Sidney, winner of the April 10 Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland, and Thorn Song, winner of the May 25 Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park.

The Firecracker is the second of three graded stakes that end the meet. The others are the Grade 3 Bashford Manor on July 3 and the Grade 3 Locust Grove on closing day, July 5.