07/03/2009 12:00AM

Photo finish problems on Churchill night card

Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Churchill officials believe that Thursday night's crowd of 33,481 was a track record other than for the Derby, Oaks, or Breeders' Cup.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A malfunction of the computerized photo-finish system during several races on the Thursday night program at Churchill Downs led racing officials to declare a dead heat for win in two of those races.

Dead heats for win were declared in the seventh and ninth races. Chief steward John Veitch said the system failed to work properly for the finish of those races and at least one other race on the card.

The malfunctions were untimely in that they occurred during the third and final night of the track's wildly successful experiment with night racing. Ontrack attendance was 33,481, which Churchill officials believe to be a track record other than for the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, or a Breeders' Cup.

Veitch said the computer malfunction first occurred in the sixth of 11 races, when placings could be easily determined by the three placing judges on duty. But in the seventh race, the placing judges informed the stewards they could not make a definitive call between Mostbeautifulstorm and Step Out Smartly, even after examining televised replays. After a lengthy delay, Veitch and fellow stewards Rick Leigh and Butch Becraft declared both horses as winners. The same result was declared after the ninth race when Sister Lou Ann and Tiamo Bella raced to a very tight finish.

In the seventh race, Mostbeautifulstorm appeared to beat Step Out Smartly by maybe an inch or two, but Veitch said the stewards could not be absolutely sure and therefore made the proper call.

The ninth race was extremely close, although it could be reasonably argued that Sister Lou Ann barely held on to beat an oncharging Tiamo Bella.

Dale Romans, trainer of Mostbeautifulstorm, claimed that proper steps might not have been followed by the placing judges for the seventh race. "My understanding is that when the horses hit the wire, all three are supposed to write down what they think the order of finish is, and in the case of the system malfunctioning, they go with those results," said Romans. "But nobody would tell me whether or not that actually happened."

Veitch said Friday morning that the placing judges "could not come up with a consensus and that proper protocol was indeed followed."

Romans said he did not know whether Jerry Crawford, an Iowa attorney who owns Mostbeautifulstorm and was not in attendance Thursday, would pursue legal action. The total purse for the race was $52,025.

Veitch said officials would work Friday to insure the photo-finish equipment was in proper order for an 11-race program later that day and for the balance of the Churchill spring meet, which ends Sunday.

Future of night racing to be studied

Churchill officials were ecstatic with the attendance Thursday. The card came amid perfect weather conditions - unlike the first two night programs of June 19 and 26, when crowds of 28,011 and 27,623 turned out despite oppressive heat and humidity.

A Churchill vice president, John Asher, said officials would evaluate the first three night programs in track history and whether the track eventually will go to the considerable expense of installing a permanent lighting system. Track officials estimate a permanent system will cost in the $4 million range or more.

The temporary system, which worked very much to the satisfaction of horsemen, was provided by Musco Lighting of Iowa and was to be dismantled in the coming days.

The average age of attendees for the three night racing programs clearly was far younger than on a normal day of racing. Churchill officials will take that and other factors into account, said Asher.

"We are overwhelmed at the response we got," said Asher. "Obviously it's the kind of trend you love to see as a racetrack operator. There are many variables to consider in deciding whether to make this permanent, and I'm sure we'll be taking a long look at all of them in due course."

Parking and concessions snafus occurred on all three nights, mostly because of the sheer volume and density of the crowds. Asher said that if night racing were to be held in the future, the track would address those problems.

Churchill is soliciting input and comments on night racing through an online survey on the track website, , through Tuesday.

Ellis on new schedule

Instead of the customary Wednesday opening of the Ellis Park summer meet following the Sunday closing of the Churchill spring meet, the first day of racing at Ellis will not be until Saturday.

Earlier this year, the owner of Ellis Park, Ron Geary, received permission from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to cut the track's dates from 48 to 23, citing the likelihood of short fields and weak business. Geary has said repeatedly in recent months that the 2009 meet will be the last one at Ellis, although he held out a sliver of hope at a Wednesday news conference at the Henderson, Ky., track when he said that "a creative miracle" could keep the track open for 2010.

Geary reiterated that the future of Ellis, where racing has been conducted since 1922, depends wholly on whether the Kentucky legislature approves alternative gaming at state tracks.

El Caballo done for year

El Caballo was a notable absentee from the Grade 2 Firecracker Handicap on Saturday at Churchill after exiting a Tuesday turf workout with "the start of a condylar fracture," according to trainer Ralph Nicks. "He's out for the year."

El Caballo, an earner of nearly $300,000 from 13 starts, won an allowance prep for the Firecracker last month at Churchill.

Nicks, the former longtime assistant to Bill Mott, was still to be represented in the Firecracker by Seaspeak. Nicks will be based primarily at Monmouth Park this summer.

Thomas scores in contest foray

Trainer Gary Thomas was the winner of the finals of the meet-long handicapping contest at Churchill on Sunday and earned a berth in the $1 million National Handicapping Championship next January in Las Vegas.

Thomas, known best as the trainer of Rampage, the hard-luck fourth-place finisher in the 1986 Derby, said this was the first time he had ever participated in handicapping contests.