06/11/2010 11:00PM

Numbers down at first Churchill night card

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Greg Fox wasn't able to make the trip from Lexington for any of the three night racing programs at Churchill last year. So when Fox was here Friday night for the first of four such cards at the 2010 spring meet, he was astounded with what he saw and felt.

"It was fabulous, it was electric," said Fox, the veterinarian-turned-trainer who saddled front-running Tizdejavu to win the biggest race of the night, the $62,235 Opening Verse. "You feel something similar during the Derby, but this is a kind of happy electricity. I really don't know if I've ever felt anything like it."

A crowd of 25,012 -- a smaller number than any of the three attendance figures in 2009, when the average was about 30,000 -- turned out Friday night amid stifling humidity and a foreboding forecast of heavy rain, which held off until shortly before the 11th and last race.

Churchill does not normally release handle figures for its company of tracks but makes the occasional exception. All-sources handle for Friday was just more than $4.9 million, which was actually down considerably from the nearly $5.9 million handled on the comparable Friday twilight program in 2009, while ontrack handle was nearly $1.4 million, more than double the comparable figure of $633,944. It must be noted, however, that problems with the new federal law that have been hindering credit- and debit-card deposits into phone and online account-wagering accounts surely contributed to the disappointing all-sources figure.

Churchill officials said they were very pleased not only with the turnout, but more so with the aura fostered by a youthful and energetic crowd that had tremendous fun with a disco theme promoted by the track.

"We had every reason to be overjoyed with the night," said Churchill vice president John Asher. "If it stays around 25,000 every Friday, that'd be just fine with us. We're thinking it has the potential to gain a little steam again. To my knowledge there were no customer-service issues like we had last year. Everywhere you went, there were a lot of smiles, a lot of young people. We're as enthusiastic about the long-term success of night racing as we've been all along."

Fans and track personalities really yukked it up Friday with their overwrought outfits of 1970's vintage, as polyester and hippie hairstyles dominated the clubhouse landscape and makeshift dance floors. Aaron Vercruysee of HRTV donned a campy crushed-velvet suit, Jill Byrne of Churchill flaunted knee-high patent-leather go-go boots, and race-caller Mark Johnson made one televised appearance between races wearing a big, poofy Afro wig.

On more serious notes, retired U.S. Army General Tommy Franks filled an honorary position by turning on the lights shortly before 8 p.m. Eastern, while action on the racetrack was hotly contested. The always-popular Calvin Borel rode two winners and was greeted by fans surrounding the winner's circle with the customary cheers and shrieks, while Tizdejavu also received a hero's welcome after taking the Opening Verse as a slight 2-1 favorite.

"It was a beautiful, proud, and emotional moment for me and my family," said Fox.

The first night racing program here on June 19, 2009, attracted $6.5 million in all-sources handle, up 32 percent over the comparable Friday twilight program of 2008, while ontrack handle was $1.6 million, more than 2 1/2 times the 2008 figure. Overall, the three night programs last year produced an aggregate increase in all-sources handle of about 10 percent, according to the track.

Night racing at Churchill, with first post of 6 p.m., also is set for June 18, June 25, and July 2. Night programs also will be conducted twice during the fall meet, on Oct. 31 and Nov. 19, while the new permanent lights system, which was installed over the winter by Musco Lighting at an estimated cost of $4 million, also will be used for the latter portions of the Nov. 5-6 Breeders' Cup programs.