05/26/2011 1:32PM

Churchill's night cards attract bigger, younger crowd

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It’s a Friday night in Louisville. The crowd is ready to party. The lines at the bar are 10-deep. The music is soaring. Young men and women in their best clubbing clothes are crowded around the stage as the singer from a local band belts out Weezer’s famously plaintive refrain:

“Say it ain’t so-a-woah-woah!”

It’s a sentiment that racing purists might agree with. Because this scene isn’t from Louisville’s hottest nightclub. It’s from Churchill Downs, the sport’s most iconic racetrack.

For the last two years, Churchill has been using select Friday and Saturday nights as a platform to remake the ontrack racing experience, discarding all of the precautions that have guided marketers for decades. This is not your father’s day at the races, with leisurely strolls through a quiet, indifferent grandstand with small crowds of bettors stooped below television monitors.

In fact, this may not even be your older brother’s day at the races.

On these night racing cards at Churchill, nationally known DJs spin records at ear-splitting volumes amid swirls of smoke and orbiting lights, stopping only to let the announcer call the race. Drink specials abound at the business end of the crush of people massed in front of bar kiosks set up in the paddock and the grandstand. Tired party-goers lounge on couches under the night sky. The noise is so deafening that the bugler’s call to the post is barely discernible.

It’s a bombardment of sound, smoke, and beer. And it works. On opening night this year, one week before the Kentucky Derby, 38,142 packed the stands, the largest crowd ever at Churchill aside from a Kentucky Oaks, Kentucky Derby, or Breeders’ Cup card. All-sources handle saw a 27 percent gain.

But perhaps most important to an industry that has struggled over the last three years, the opening-night figures proved that the night-racing experiment launched two years ago by Churchill Downs has legs. Average attendance for the eight night racing cards held before opening night this year was 26,000, triple the average of day cards. Handle on the Friday-night cards has been double what it was when the cards were held during the day, according to Churchill.

“I have to say it was one of the best days ever under the spires for me personally,” said Churchill’s president, Kevin Flanery, who has been with Churchill for five years. “It really clicked on every level.”

The typical racetracker might not agree. On a race night, trying to get a good view of the horses, a clear path to the wagering lines, and a little peace and quiet to get your thoughts straight before putting down your bets can be maddening − especially around the paddock and grandstand.

But that’s missing the forest for the trees, according to Churchill officials. While the ground floor of Churchill is chaotic, conditions remain tolerable for handicappers in the track’s other levels. There, a bettor can find a seat in a subdued room, proving that Churchill is still a racetrack on Friday nights.

“One of my favorite things about the track as it exists today is that we have the ability to offer different experiences for different people,” Flanery said. “If you want to have a picnic in the paddock, we’ve got picnic tables, and you can do that. If you want to be on millionaire’s row, we have that. If you have a private group that wants to be in a suite, we have that capability. When we have 38,000 people here, we have 10 to 15 parties going on around the track that all have their own unique personalities. That’s what keeps people coming back. It’s never boring.”

Churchill’s diverse multi-level layout certainly sets it apart from some tracks, which can typically be divided into grandstand and clubhouse. But there’s another reason that night racing has been such a success at the track.

Churchill is unique because it holds the sport’s most famous race in a market that is exposed to horses throughout the year. Horses in Louisville are part of the culture, and Churchill is the hub for the one-week party that leads up to the first Saturday in May. Those aren’t advantages other tracks can emulate simply by hiring DJs, setting up disco lights, and installing Marshall amplifier stacks.

“This community loves horse racing,” Flanery said. “They embrace it in a way like nowhere else. All you have to do is look at how this town rolls out the red carpet for Derby week, for Breeders’ Cup week. It’s not just a racetrack. It’s a part of the fabric of the community.”

The night racing cards have been such a success that elements of the strategy are filtering down to other cards. Churchill will hold only four night-racing cards during the 10-week spring meet – Churchill officials say that any more would make the nights less special – but on all other Fridays, the track is starting racing at 2:45 p.m. Live music is offered throughout the twilight cards, and happy hour runs from 6 to 8 p.m., at which point racing ends and a regionally popular band takes a stage outside the paddock for a two-hour postrace party.

But is this the way to make racing fans? Casey Cook, the track’s vice president of brand and product development, said racing has to get young people in the door, and that’s where the twilight and night racing cards are succeeding, which is important for an industry whose fan base skews heavily toward older males.

“We’ve learned a few things over the last few years,” Cook said. “People love to go to the track. People love to get dressed up. But people also love the romanticism of racing. People aren’t just coming out here to see and be seen. Just look at the handle numbers. You can watch the masses of young people going to the paddock, following them to the track, and watching on the apron. That’s important. We have to get them through the door, because that’s the only way to introduce them to the sport.”

Late on a recent twilight racing card, a few well-dressed young racegoers holding mixed drinks near the trackside winner’s circle noticed that a race was being run only when the horses passed by the first time. But then the open-air crowd turned its attention to the race, and by the time the seven horses were deep in the stretch, the roar had become deafening.

Before the results were official, the band near the paddock started up again, leaping into “Blister in the Sun,” a Violent Femmes party song that couldn’t be played unedited on the radio when it was released 18 years ago because of a scandalous verse. Few could have expected to ever hear the song at a racetrack.

“Things change,” said John Asher, Churchill’s vice president of communications. “You’ve got to be ready for it. Change, change, change.”