06/17/2009 11:00PM

Churchill goes under the lights

Reed Palmer Photography
The last race Friday at Churchill Downs is scheduled for 11:11 p.m.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Fans have strolled out of Churchill Downs at night before. But that was after they had watched simulcasting from other tracks, or a private event, or a special occasion like the Rolling Stones concert in 2006 or the Police in 2007.

But when thousands of fans stream into the dark night Friday, it will be after witnessing history: the first horse races conducted under lights at Churchill, where racing has been limited to daytime for 134 years.

"There's been a huge amount of anticipation and excitement," said Churchill vice president John Asher.

Churchill will stage an 11-race card beginning at 6 p.m. Eastern, meaning the last four races or so will require the temporary lighting system provided by Musco Lighting, an Iowa-based company that has constructed and operated similar systems for a variety of sporting and entertainment events.

Post time for the seventh race is 9:05 p.m., when there still is ample daylight at this time of year on the western cusp of the Eastern time zone, assuming clear weather. But after that, artificial means will be needed to illuminate the track. The eighth race is set for 9:40, the ninth at 10:12, the 10th at 10:42, and the 11th at 11:11, meaning some fans and workers will still be trickling out at the witching hour of midnight.

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Churchill opened the racetrack for training well before dawn Monday and Tuesday to provide trial runs with the lighting system. The consensus of horsemen was that there should be little or no problem. Musco and Churchill workers smoothed out a few minor kinks - a blown generator Monday, and the adjusting of some lighting angles to alleviate shadowing Tuesday - before proclaiming the system ready to go.

Most of the temporary lights are stationed outside the circumference of the one-mile main oval and point inward. On the backstretch, the lights are to the infield side of the turf course and point outward. None of the lights is focused on the turf, which will not be used for racing after dusk, but the mile chute on the main track is part of the lighting pattern.

The lighting fixtures are on the rooftop of the grandstand and clubhouse, on truckbeds in the infield, atop three 120-foot poles in the outdoor grandstand box areas, and on other poles and frames.

After Friday, two more night programs will be held at the spring meet, on June 26 and July 2.

Churchill officials have said the initial investment of temporary lighting will be a losing financial investment, but worth exploring for its potential long-term value. Horsemen have said they are willing to go along despite hardships for them and their workers. With stablehands typically coming in at about 5 a.m., night racing obviously makes for a very long workday.

"We're willing to go along with it to see how it goes," said veteran trainer Dale Romans. "A lot of us have raced at night quite a bit in the past, so it's not like something foreign."

Other major Thoroughbred tracks in North America employ lights, occasionally or otherwise, most notably Hollywood Park on Friday nights. Night racing is conducted on a more regular basis at tracks such as the Meadowlands, Lone Star Park, and Woodbine.

Determining whether the first three nights are successful at Churchill could be difficult, considering that the novelty of these forays into new territory may bias the relevant data. Churchill officials are aware of the need to analyze the initial programs in that context, said Darren Rogers, senior director of communications at Churchill.

"We're going to take everything into account, from the excitement level to all business levels, including attendance, handle, program sales, and the like," Rogers said Wednesday. "It will all be dissected and examined to see whether or not we move forward on permanent lighting. I can tell you right now that the excitement level is extremely high."

The four network affiliates in the local television market have been all over the night-racing story, featuring it prominently in newscasts. All four sent reporters out before dawn for the Monday training session.

Nationally, the night program will be covered live and onsite by HorseRacing TV, with Peter Lurie and Caton Bredar serving as anchors.

For the occasion, five Friday races have been named in honor of horses with names to fit the theme and who have made a mark at Churchill, including 1953 Kentucky Derby winner Dark Star and 1991 Kentucky Oaks winner Lite Light.

As for wagering opportunities beyond the norm Friday, Churchill is offering a $100,000 guaranteed pool on the middle pick four (races 4-7) and two super high five wagers (races 6 and 11).

Churchill is ramping up its ontrack fan-related offerings for the first night program. Attractions will include food and drink specials, red carpet entrances at Gates 10 and 17, and a variety of live music and non-traditional settings to effect "the look and feel of an upscale nightclub," according to a track release.

Although Churchill does not reveal attendance figures except for Derby and Oaks days, estimates call for an ontrack crowd of 15,000 to 20,000. General admission, normally $3, will cost $10 on Friday and $6 for the next two night programs. A pass for all three nights is available for $15. Gates open at 4 p.m.

The weather forecast calls for a 40 percent chance of thundershowers, with a daytime high temperature of 92.