11/12/2009 12:00AM

Is a night Breeders' Cup a bright idea for 2010?


When Churchill Downs experimented with nighttime racing on three occasions earlier this year, the place absolutely buzzed. A younger, hipper crowd averaging nearly 30,000 a night turned out, giving Churchill hope it had found a way to attract new fans.

Since then, Churchill management has made the decision to install a permanent lighting system so as to be able to conduct nighttime racing whenever it wants. Although there has been speculation - but certainly no decisions made - about whether Churchill might eventually run the Kentucky Derby or Kentucky Oaks under the lights, the possibility of that happening for 2010 appears remote because of the timing and logistics involved.

Churchill was scheduled no later than Tuesday to unveil many of the details about its new lighting system and plans for night racing at the 2010 spring meet, according to track spokesman John Asher.

But what about the Breeders' Cup in 2010, when the championships will return to Churchill next Nov. 5-6 for a record seventh time? The factors involved in what would be the first Breeders' Cup races staged under lights are numerous and complicated, with the most important variables being the windows of television time available and the desires of the three involved parties: Churchill, Breeders' Cup Ltd., and ABC/ESPN.

Mark Mandel, the New York-based spokesman for ABC and ESPN, said this week that any decision regarding a Breeders' Cup under lights is "a long way away," adding: "If you're asking, with lights now at Churchill Downs, might that enter into our thinking? Yes - as do many, many other factors. In every programming decision, there is a lot of circumstance involved."

Jim Gluckson, the longtime senior media consultant for the Breeders' Cup, said early this week that Breeders' Cup CEO Greg Avioli could not yet comment.

"We haven't even talked to ESPN or Churchill about it at all, so we're not ready to talk about it yet as a story," Gluckson said.

Last weekend at Santa Anita, in a lengthy informal conversation, Gluckson allowed that a Breeders' Cup under lights "is certainly very interesting, but obviously the issues are very complex."

At a recent unveiling of the 2010 Breeders' Cup logo at Churchill, Avioli mentioned a "twilight" program with the last few races under the lights as something that could be considered, and Asher said that might be the most logical concept if the new lights are to be utilized.

"Right now, I think we'd all agree that it's premature to speculate, since there have been no serious discussions," Asher said. "I'm sure we'll all take a look, and ultimately, as the host track, that decision would be ours."

Among the many variables to consider:

* Television: Scheduled post time for the final Breeders' Cup race both Friday and Saturday last weekend at Santa Anita was 3:45 p.m. Pacific (6:45 Eastern), with programming ending at 7 Eastern (nine hours of combined coverage were shown this past weekend). Historically, last post for a Breeders' Cup held in the East has been about 5 or 5:30 p.m., although clearly that would not have to apply now to a lit-up Churchill.

Mandel emphasized that existing contractual agreements involving other sports programming could factor heavily into what windows might be available. The main attractions that directly followed the Breeders' Cup last weekend on the ESPN family of networks were NBA basketball on Friday and college football on Saturday.

* Friday or Saturday: With ABC and ESPN being major carriers of Saturday college football, and because a later post pushes racing out of the workday, Friday would seem a more likely candidate for races to be run past 7 or 7:30 p.m. The biggest potential bump in TV ratings also might occur with a later Friday card.

* Weather: Very much unlike the three cards at the spring meet (June 19, June 26, and July 2), when darkness fell around 9:30 p.m. amid sultry temperatures, the convergent dynamics of weather, sunlight, and crowd comforts (i.e., no skimpy summerwear) figure to be far different in early November.

"Aw, we all know it's going to be sunny and 70 both days next year," Asher joked.

* Practicality: In contrast to the lights being used as a means to draw a bigger crowd or TV audience, they might just need to be used as practical tools. Without lights, racing might have to start at some ridiculously early hour, like 10:30 a.m., to fit everything in.

If the same TV windows are available as last year, clearly a 7 p.m. conclusion would necessitate the last three or four races being run under lights. Whatever the schedule, there will be nothing like the bizarre scene of the 1988 BC Classic, when Alysheba beat Seeking the Gold in virtual darkness.

"Some people will always say 1988 was the real introduction to night racing at Churchill Downs," said a laughing Asher.

* Facility maintenance: Although Churchill is renowned for its ability to be ready to open its gates at 8 a.m. on Derby Day, despite having hosted 100,000-plus fans on Oaks Day, there is some question as to how difficult the turnaround would be if the Friday program went deep into the night.

* Offtrack fans: Surely a later Breeders' Cup (beyond 7 or 7:30 Eastern) on either day would capture a larger segment of the crucial California and Las Vegas wagering markets, but would a later post necessarily be good for East Coast bettors? Continued growth in account wagering would mitigate either factor, but on balance, it's arguable that a later post either day would necessarily attract an appreciably higher all-sources handle. As anecdotal clues, Churchill showed huge increases in its ontrack attendance (400-plus percent) and handle (250-plus percent) versus comparable 2008 dates when hosting night racing last spring, but only a marginal increase (10 percent) in all-sources wagering those nights.

* History: Of the 10 tracks that have hosted the Breeders' Cup, two (Hollywood and Lone Star) have had lights that could have been used for both turf and dirt races, but the topic of night racing did not come under serious discussion.