04/26/2012 12:43PM

Churchill Downs: Foster Handicap will light up the night for the first time this June

Barbara D. Livingston
With the exception of the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, the biggest races at Churchill Downs are practically all run under the lights.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – After the Kentucky Derby is over, easily the best of the leftovers at the Churchill Downs spring meet every year has been the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap.

But Churchill officials got something of an awakening the last few years when scheduling Friday night cards before the Foster was run the following Saturday afternoons. Last year, an ontrack crowd of 23,332 showed up Friday, but the next day, in a textbook case of “What’s wrong with this picture,” there probably weren’t even half that many people on hand when the Foster, the supposed “highlight” of the post-Derby portion of the meet, was showcased.

Since Churchill first experimented with temporary banks of lights in the spring of 2009 – to the horror of some racing purists, for sure – and through the installation of the permanent lights system the following year, there has been an inexorable shifting of the main events at Churchill to nights. In 2010 and 2011, parts of the Breeders’ Cup programs in the fall were run under the lights, as were the standard late-meet features, led by the Clark Handicap. Last year was the first for an “opening night” for the spring meet and the Derby Trial, resulting in a night-racing record crowd of 38,142 – and thus having an opening night again this year, and presumably for all future years, has become a no-brainer.

And now the Foster has joined the nighttime fold. In attempting to remedy the curious dichotomy that existed the last three years, the $400,000 Foster on June 16 will anchor one of three Saturday night programs in the final month of the 2012 spring meet.

“The ultimate goal of our night racing is three-fold,” said Churchill spokesman Darren Rogers, “and that’s to offer something for the core customer, the casual fan, and the entertainment seeker. We’ve had discussions about moving a major program like Stephen Foster to prime time, and after last year when we had such a big success with the Derby Trial on opening night, we decided to do it. We want to incorporate our high-quality racing events with the fashion, the music, the party, if you will.”

Of course, now all that’s left to move to nighttime are the Kentucky Derby and Oaks. But don’t hold your breath for either of those to go under the lights.

“We’ll never say never, but there are no plans whatsoever regarding Oaks or Derby moving to nighttime events,” said Rogers.

Particularly among the local populace, the nighttime cards obviously have proven very popular, with crowds averaging more than 25,000, although there has not been a proportional rise in ontrack or all-sources wagering handle. This is understandable, as most of the new numbers represent young people whose primary concerns are of a social, and not a gambling, nature. Suffice it to say that when the novice player is here Saturday night, the chances of him or her betting on a horse such as Cheers and Beers (race 3) or Bourbon Courage (Derby Trial, race 8) will simply be because of the horse’s name, and not because of a studious perusal of the horse’s past performances.

“The basic formula has been tripling the ontrack attendance [versus previous figures for afternoon cards], doubling the ontrack handle, and a pretty wide variance on our all-sources numbers, although they’ve mostly been positive,” said Rogers. “The all-sources have depended on who we were piggybacking in the simulcast market and quite a few other factors.”

With just 4 of 39 spring programs, and only one at the month-long fall meet, Churchill also is trying to ensure that the night programs stay fresh. “We’re introducing racing to a whole new demographic while also trying to satisfy our loyal fans,” said Rogers. “It’s a fine line to straddle, but we sure are trying.”