03/15/2010 11:00PM

Reaction mixed to Churchill lights

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The permanent lights that now tower above the Churchill Downs landscape are hard to miss. It might be reasonably argued that, at best, the lights are just a minor alteration to the history-rich aesthetics of this 135-year-old track, or, at worst, obtrusive and unsightly.

"I know it's a corporate deal where they need to make money," said Phil Thomas Jr., a trainer who has been a Churchill regular since the 1970 spring meet. "But I really think the lights take away from all the tradition of Churchill and the Kentucky Derby. Now the place looks like one of the minor-league tracks with the light stands all over the place. Look, they're everywhere."

Last fall, Churchill hired Musco Lighting to install the permanent system after a three-night experiment last summer proved wildly successful in terms of ontrack attendance. Churchill was fully cognizant that it was striking something of a trade-off, with aesthetics being partly sacrificed for the practicality of improving business.

"It does look different, and no question it takes a little bit of getting used to," said track spokesman John Asher. "Seeing all these light poles for the first time can be a little jarring. But we've taken this step to do what our fans and our market said they wanted. Those are structures that haven't been here in 135 years, but those new structures do open up some new and promising doors."

Only the one-mile main track was illuminated with temporary lights last summer, but now that the turf course and mile chute will be lit, too, more light poles have been erected. Asher said the adjustment that longtime fans will have to make is somewhat reminiscent of the $121 million renovation that was completed in 2005, when the new grandstand suites were found to obscure partly the famed Twin Spires from certain viewpoints.

"People said then that the renovation would take away from the historic character and integrity of the racetrack, but I think, in hindsight, the majority of fans have seen the end result as being a positive thing," said Asher.

The light system is expected to be fully wired and operational by early to mid-April, when further testing and tweaking will be conducted before the April 24 start of the Churchill spring meet, said Asher. The first of six 2010 night programs is set for June 11. Churchill reopened its stable area March 5 following the customary winter break of about nine weeks.

* The "Undercover Boss" program that aired Sunday night on CBS and featured Churchill Downs Inc.'s chief operating officer, Bill Carstanjen, was watched by approximately 13.3 million viewers, according to overnight Nielsen ratings. Churchill hosted about 75 employees, including Carstanjen, for a viewing at the track.