04/24/2014 12:45PM

Change is in the air as Churchill Downs opens spring meet

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Barbara D. Livingston
The new video board at Churchill Downs will be among the biggest changes when the track opens its spring meet Saturday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The folks who were here in 1875 probably wouldn’t recognize Churchill Downs anymore. Not only were their beloved Twin Spires dwarfed by a massive remodeling almost 10 years ago, but lights have been installed, including some on the inner perimeter of a turf course, no less.

Now comes a monstrosity to break all the records, a $12 million Panasonic 4K ultra-high-definition LED video board that will dramatically transform the ontrack experience for Churchill racegoers. Constructed just to the outside of the backstretch, across from the five-furlong pole, the board reaches 170 feet in the air and can be seen from virtually any seat in the house.

“It’s a game-changer, that’s for sure,” said Churchill spokesman Darren Rogers. “We really think the new video board will redefine the racing experience at Churchill for everyone.”

As Churchill opens its 38-day spring meet Saturday with the first of four Downs After Dark programs (first post, 6 p.m. Eastern), the big board will be used for a variety of entertainment and informational purposes, not the least of which is to make ontrack action easier for fans to follow. Its advantages will be emphatically driven home when the 140th Kentucky Derby is run May 3 with more than 150,000 people on hand, the vast majority of whom will have a view of the board.

“When the idea was kicked around last year, we decided, ‘Let’s future-cast with a board that won’t be obsolete five or six years from now,’ ” said Rogers. “It’s state of the art, with four times the resolution of regular high def. I was trying to look for spots around the track from where somebody might not be able to see the board, and there just aren’t many of them.”

In conjunction with the video board, the audio system throughout the facility also has undergone major improvement, with 750 new speakers installed, including some on infield light poles that will allow infield patrons to hear the audio feed for the first time.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

Churchill also is set to unveil a newly renovated section of its grandstand in the vicinity of the quarter pole, adjacent to Central Avenue. That extensive project cost an estimated $14.5 million and will provide upgrades to a long-neglected part of the facility. The upgrades will not only be welcomed by the Oaks and Derby crowds but also will be put to good use at other times of the year.

And as if there’s not enough going on around here, the opener also marks the first night for Larry Collmus as the regular race caller at Churchill. Collmus, 47, becomes the seventh announcer in track history, replacing Mark Johnson, who called here for five years.

As usual, the $2 million Kentucky Derby is the linchpin of a spring schedule that features 24 stakes worth almost $7.7 million in total. Derby Weekend will include 12 stakes, with six each on Kentucky Oaks Day (May 2) and Derby Day. Other Grade 1 events on Derby Weekend are the La Troienne Stakes, the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, and the Humana Distaff.

The post-Derby highlight once again will be the Grade 1, $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap, one of four stakes worth a total of $900,000 on a June 14 Downs After Dark program. Aside from opening night and Foster Night, two other night cards are set for June 20 and 27.

This is the fourth year Churchill has raced under the lights to open the spring meet. The 2011 opener lured a throng of 38,142, still the record for a Churchill night program. In all, this will be the 25th night card, the first having taken place in June 2009 under a temporary lights system.

With a Saturday night opening, there no longer is a Sunday program the following day. A five-day week then runs Tuesday through Derby Day, with mostly a four-day schedule (Thursdays through Sundays) in place afterward.

The Churchill jockey colony is led by Corey Lanerie, the leading jockey at four of the last five Churchill meets, along with top riders such as Julien Leparoux, Rosie Napravnik, Calvin Borel, Shaun Bridgmohan, Robby Albarado, and newcomer Stewart Elliott.