06/15/2011 12:44PM

Churchill Downs: Evening card features Opening Verse


LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Churchill Downs is trying to keep it real – and keep it a novelty, too. The night-racing concept that has become such a phenomenon in the last couple of years comes unchained again Friday, the second of four such spring programs in a carefully calculated move not to give beer-swilling twentysomethings too much of a good thing.

First post is 6 p.m. Eastern, meaning the last few of 11 races will require the Churchill lights to be illuminated in what has evolved into something of a secondary trademark for a business in transition. Two of the glow-in-the-dark events (races 9 and 10) are allowances, both of them presumably more attractive for horseplayers than the nominal feature, the $68,000 Opening Verse, a turf route banished to the light of day as race 4.

A handful of stakes-savvy runners are entered in the Opening Verse, including Tajaaweed, sixth in the Arlington Million last summer; Turallure, winner of the Guilliams Memorial last summer at Ellis Park; and Kingofthebluegrass, a last-out winner of the Memorial Day Handicap at Mountaineer Park. But the horse to beat in a balanced field might wind up being Dark Cove, whose only two tries in stakes were disappointments but whose last two races in allowance company were both outstanding.

“I still think he could wind up being a graded type of horse,” said his trainer, Ken McPeek.

No trainer has been more effective in recent weeks in Churchill stakes than McPeek, who swept a pair of Grade 3 races June 4 with Salty Strike (Dogwood) and Noble’s Promise (Aristides), then won the Grade 3 Mint Julep last Saturday with My Baby Baby.

The Opening Verse, named for the upset winner of the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill, was assimilated for several years into the Stephen Foster program before cuts and revisions were made to the stakes schedule.

The later allowances on the Friday card are a $55,200, first-level race that drew an oversubscribed field of turf routers, followed by a $60,600, third-level race at 1 1/16 miles on the main track. Todd Pletcher has the morning-line favorites in those respective races in Ocean Seven and Modern Cowboy.

In a break from tradition, the Friday card also will include a between-races presentation of the engraved trophies to the winning connections of this year’s Kentucky Derby. Trainer Graham Motion and Barry Irwin, who manages the Team Valor International partnership that owns Derby winner Animal Kingdom, are both expected to be on hand. In prior years, the trophy presentation had been conducted on Stephen Foster Day, which is set for Saturday afternoon, “but we’re thinking it could be more fun and appropriate to have it done before a large crowd Friday night,” said track spokesman Darren Rogers.

Churchill first used temporary lights at the 2009 spring meet before installing a permanent system last year. Ontrack attendance for eight night programs in 2009-10 averaged about 26,000, triple the average for day cards, while all-sources handle rose 27 percent. Then, starting off its 2011 spring meet on April 30, Churchill opened at night for the first time and pulled 38,142 through the gates, an all-time high for a non-Derby, Oaks, or Breeders’ Cup card.

“With these ‘Downs After Dark’ events, we have to resist the temptation to add more,” said Rogers. “Right now we know three or four during a spring meet is working, although that doesn’t mean we won’t add an additional date in the future. They are special and unique events, and we want to treat them and present them as such.”

The final two Fridays of the meet, June 24, and July 1, also will be night programs with a $10 general admission. The 39-day meet runs through July 4.

Weather conditions for Friday night call for comfortable temperatures in the high 70s with a possibility of rain.