Large crowd, long lines for Churchill night cardBy Marty McGee
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Julien Leparoux was walking through the paddock runway after riding in the first night race in the 134-year history of Churchill Downs and looked up at the massive crowd.
"It looks like the Dubai World Cup," said Leparoux.
Indeed, amid the almost surreal setting of artificial lighting and a festive crowd estimated at more than 30,000, the first night of racing at Churchill was a success of world-class proportions, at least in sheer volume and density. The Friday card began at 6 p.m. Eastern in brutal summer heat and wound its way through 11 races, with lines for drinks and food concessions 30- and 40-deep in many spots. Conversely, betting lines weren't nearly as long, as plunking down a wager at most mutuel windows was fairly easy.
"I see a whole lot of young people drinking beer but not going to the windows," said Pat Campbell of Louisville, who has been attending races at Churchill for more than 50 years.
Greeted with the literal red-carpet treatment at two main entrance gates, and with several bands playing various genres of music throughout the six-story clubhouse and grandstand, fans were eager to see history made on an otherwise ordinary card of racing. The first seven of 11 races were contested from daylight to twilight, but by the eighth race, when Leparoux climbed aboard Chief Waterbury, an eventual also-ran, the temporary lighting system provided by Musco Lighting of Iowa was being fully utilized. When the field of 10 broke from the gate in the six-furlong claiming race, a huge cheer erupted in apparent tribute to its historical importance, almost as if the field for the Kentucky Derby had been dispatched.
The race was won in convincing fashion by Final Copy, the 7-5 favorite, with Robby Albarado riding for owner-trainer Jere R. Smith Jr. The victory was the first for Smith, a former mainstay of the Chicago circuit, since he returned from a five-year stint of training in Saudi Arabia.
Smith may have been elated with the win, but perhaps not more than Billy Warrick, a Louisville resident picked from the crowd by way of a raffle called "Bet or No Bet," which was held on five races during the card. Warrick was given $1,000 to bet on any horse of his choice, and he picked Final Copy, earning $2,400.
Easily the most trying aspect of the evening was the difficult accessibility to concessions for the vast majority of those who paid a $10 admission price, especially those on the first and second floors.
"Great idea, great atmosphere, poor execution," said Dennis "Boogie" Becker of Louisville. "You can't get a beer or anything to drink. That part has been really, really tough."
Overall, however, Churchill achieved its primary goal of dramatically increasing awareness of the racing product to a demographic nowhere to be found on other days here.
"It looks like they got what they wanted, with all these people coming out for the races," said Leparoux.
Churchill officials said earlier in the week that they will view the turnout in the context of the first night program being novel and historic when they undertake an evaluation process as to whether night racing will become a staple. The Friday night program was the first of three to be run at the Churchill spring meet. Night cards on June 26 and July 2 will follow.