04/25/2013 3:43PM

Churchill Downs should draw big crowd for Downs After Dark opener

Barbara D. Livingston
Overanalyze, one of five Kentucky Derby hopefuls trained by Todd Pletcher, exercises at Churchill Downs on Thursday morning.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Buoyed by the customary buzz that comes with having a Kentucky Derby right around the corner, the Churchill Downs spring meet will kick off Saturday night with the likelihood of another big ontrack crowd, many of whom presumably will stick around to watch the Grade 3, $175,000 Derby Trial.

First post Saturday is 6 p.m. Eastern, with the Trial, the 10th of 11 races, set for 10:42 and the last race going at 11:10. Churchill officials first used a night opener in April 2011 after being encouraged by the 20,000-plus turnouts that have unfailingly accompanied spring-meet night programs since lights were first used here in 2009.

The Trial, a one-mile race out of the Longfield Avenue chute, drew a field of nine, with Zee Bros a slight 5-2 favorite for the Hall of Fame jockey-trainer combination of Mike Smith and Bob Baffert. More so than some of the earlier races on opening night – the first four races drew respective fields of 5, 6, 6, and 7 – the Trial shapes up as a solid wagering event.

Clearly, Churchill officials are hoping those small numbers will be an exception and not the rule as the 38-day meet unfolds, although the reality of their continued struggle to attract sufficient numbers of horses should make things interesting through meet’s end, June 30.

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

Corey Lanerie, easily the leading jockey here last spring and fall, is back with plenty of business, although he figures to find plenty of competition from the ever-popular Rosie Napravnik for the next couple of months. After the 139th Derby is run May 4 and many of the other big-name riders retreat to New York or California, Lanerie and Napravnik figure to rise to the top of the colony, with Calvin Borel, Robby Albarado, Joe Rocco Jr., Miguel Mena, Alan Garcia, and Brian Hernandez Jr. among those battling for the other spots in the top five.

Many of the familiar stables are here for the duration, including that of Mike Maker, coming off a sensational spring meet at Keeneland, along with former Churchill titlists Dale Romans, Steve Asmussen, Tom Amoss, and Ken McPeek. They are joined by several newcomers, perhaps most notably Donnie K. Von Hemel, a longtime Arlington Park summer denizen who instead will have a full barn of 36 here all spring.

Romans, the Louisville native and resident who was conspicuously quiet at Keeneland this spring, said he has been focusing his energies lately on having a big meet at his hometown track.

“We’ve got three in opening night, and hopefully we’ll have plenty of numbers to throw at them the whole meet,” he said. “A lot of things depend on which races go and who you can get in, but we’re pretty optimistic coming in.”

Churchill also will host Downs After Dark programs on the last three Saturdays (June 15, 22, 29) of its 38-day spring meet. The first of those includes the post-Derby highlight of the meet, the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap, a 1 1/8-mile main-track race that, at best, could get the 2012 Horse of the Year, Wise Dan, or, at least, his highly accomplished older half-brother, Successful Dan.

After the Saturday opener, Churchill goes dark Sunday and Monday before the five-day Derby week commences Tuesday afternoon. Subsequent weeks will consist of four days of racing, down from the five-day weeks used at Keeneland. Wednesdays are the additional dark day here.

Among numerous new features on the grounds for Derby week is an upgraded Section 110 on the clubhouse turn. The section is not permanent and will be disassembled after the Derby.