09/28/2009 11:00PM

Churchill to install permanent lights

Reed Palmer/Churchill Downs
Churchill Downs conducted three night cards this year using temporary lighting.

Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., has begun soliciting bids for the installation of permanent lights so the track can schedule live race cards at night by the start of the 2010 spring meet, the track's parent company announced Monday.

The plan to install permanent lights follows the track's decision earlier this year to schedule night cards on three consecutive Fridays during its spring meet using temporary lighting. Those cards attracted an average of 30,000 customers each night - a fourfold increase over attendance on daytime Friday cards during the 2008 meet. Ontrack handle for the cards was up 250 percent compared to the daytime 2008 cards.

Liz Harris, a Churchill spokeswoman, said Monday that the company had not yet decided how many night cards would be scheduled next year. Harris said that company officials plan to talk with horsemen, neighborhood representatives, and racing fans to determine the proper mix of night and day racing for 2010.

"We're going to carefully evaluate the feedback," Harris said. "We don't want to do too much, because then it's not a novelty anymore."

Churchill typically runs for nine weeks in the spring and summer, from late April until the Fourth of July holiday weekend. It also holds a four-week meet in the fall, usually for all or most of November.

The night racing cards attracted a much younger crowd than is typically seen at Churchill, despite sweltering temperatures for the first two cards held June 19 and June 26. Although admission prices were higher than daytime cards, Churchill offered specials on beer and other concessions and set up dance floors and disco-type lighting in the grandstand. In fact, Churchill cut the price of its 12-ounce drafts to $1, and its executives staffed beer lines for the second Friday card because of complaints about long lines for the first night racing card.

Horsemen were ambivalent at first about the night-racing cards, with some complaining that the change in schedule would disrupt working hours for their staffs. However, most horsemen supported the change when the cards proved successful.

Officials for Kentucky horsemen did not immediately return phone calls Monday.

Churchill, a publicly traded company, owns four other racetracks, including Fair Grounds in New Orleans, which has a lighting system. Harris said that the cost for the installation at Churchill was not yet known because the company had not received any bids for the installation.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that none of the other tracks owned by Churchill Downs Inc. has permanent lights. Fair Grounds has a lighting system that was installed in the 1980s.