06/08/2010 11:00PM

Night card promises a hot time


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Amid the swelter of summer and the sounds of disco, more than 30,000 ontrack fans are expected Friday at Churchill Downs for the long-awaited return of night racing.

First post for the 11-race card is 6 p.m. Eastern, meaning about six or seven races will be run before the new permanent lighting system will be required to brighten the dirt and turf courses. Churchill initiated night racing under temporary lights at the 2009 spring meet to tremendous fanfare, with youth-dominated crowds averaging about 30,000 over three nights.

Daytime temperatures are supposed to surge past 90, which portends a repeat of the uncomfortably hot conditions in which two night programs were run last year. Long lines for concessions plagued the first such night in 2009, but Churchill and its catering contractor, Levy Restaurants, have pledged a far more efficient operation this time around.

The Friday program being offered for knowing and novice fans alike is a good one. The featured 10th race, the $62,000 Opening Verse, has seven stakes winners among its field of 10, most notably Furthest Land, winner of the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile last November at Santa Anita. Furthest Land, based at the Trackside training center, will be making his first start since finishing 14th and last in the $10 million Dubai World Cup in March.

"This looked like a good spot to get started back," said trainer Mike Maker. "He's been training extremely well here at Trackside, so we're excited about bringing him back on a big night at Churchill."

Post time for the Opening Verse, a 1 1/16-mile turf race, is set for 10:52 p.m., with the last race going at 11:20.

There has been great anticipation amid a local marketing blitz for the return of night racing, which also will be held June 18, June 25, and July 2. Every "Downs After Dark" night will carry a theme, with a disco promotion set for this first one.

Over the winter, Churchill installed permanent lights at an estimated cost of $4 million. The lights will be used for parts of the two Breeders' Cup programs to be run here Nov. 5-6, and their presence has sparked widespread discussion about if or when the Kentucky Derby ever will be run under the lights.