04/02/2009 12:00AM

Churchill plans night races

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Wrigley Field did it more than two decades ago. Now another American sports institution will hold events under lights.

Churchill Downs will conduct nighttime racing for the first time in its 134-year history when the track hosts three night programs late in the 2009 spring meet.

Pending approval on Tuesday from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, Churchill will start 11-race cards at 6 p.m. Eastern and conclude at about 11 p.m. on Friday, June 19; Friday, June 26; and Thursday, July 2.

The Kentucky Derby will not be affected in any way by the proposed change, according to Darren Rogers, senior director of communications at Churchill.

The track will hire Iowa-based Musco Lighting to install portable lights around the one-mile oval and into the mile chute. There will be no stakes races on any of the three cards.

The night dates will come at about the same time as the summer equinox, when daylight lasts until nearly 10 p.m. in Louisville, located on the western edge of the Eastern time zone. The lights will not be used for the seven-furlong turf course, but turf races can be carded before sundown on the nighttime cards.

Rogers said the track is simply "trying something new" while attempting to spice up a meet that tends to fizzle out with the onset of summer. "We usually need to sustain momentum after the Stephen Foster is run" in mid-June, he said. "We thought this would be a unique way to do it. It should be a lot of fun."

There has been speculation for years that Churchill would conduct night racing. Permanent lighting actually was planned as part of the $121 million renovation that was completed in 2005, but the lights were scrapped at the 11th hour because of cost considerations.

Rogers said Churchill officials had canvassed neighborhood associations in recent days and was granted their blessing to conduct the night programs. He added the track did not plan to issue a release on the news until after the commission gives its approval at a regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday in Lexington.

Rick Hiles, president of the Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said horsemen "generally are willing to go along with" the nighttime racing. "I'm personally not much in favor of it, but I'm not going to say no, because they're wanting to try something different. So for that reason we'll give it a try.'

Friday night racing has been particularly popular with ontrack fans at Hollywood Park in California and at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky. As for simulcast benefits, Churchill figures to capture a larger segment of major Western markets such as Nevada and California because of the timing of the cards.

Churchill has conducted only day racing since the track opened in 1875. The 2009 spring meet runs April 25 to July 5.

The owners of Wrigley Field, the iconic home of the Chicago Cubs, long had resisted night games until finally installing permanent lights to great fanfare in 1988.