LIGHTS … CAMERAS … ACTION, SORT OF – The temporary lights were aglow and the television cameras were ready to roll when the gates Churchill Downs’ historic one-mile main track were opened for the first-ever session of training under the lights at the home of the Kentucky Derby on Monday at 4:57 a.m. (all times EDT).
Four minutes later, a set of three horses from the Bret Calhoun barn came on the track at the five-eighths gap led by Country Living. A little after that, the first worker of the day, Sok Sok from the Steve Asmussen barn, put in a five-furlong breeze in 1:04.60.
That paved the way for Asmussen’s second worker, the brilliant Kentucky Oaks (Grade I) and Preakness (GI) winner Rachel Alexandra, who zipped through six furlongs in 1:12 under Dominic Terry.
The lights remained on until the 8 o’clock renovation break and everything was business as usual.
“It seems all right,” jockey Larry Sterling Jr. said. “They may have to tweak a few things and the shadow from the rail could be a problem.”
Jockey Jamie Theriot, who also worked some horses under the lights, concurred.
“It was good. They may have to make a couple of adjustments like maybe a different angle in spots,” Theriot said. “But the good thing is the majority of the riders here have ridden under the lights, so it is not new to them.”
Churchill Downs is set to conduct the first of its “Downs After Dark” night racings sessions – the first racing under the lights in the 135-year history of the track – on Friday, June 19. Other night race programs are scheduled for Friday, June 26 and Thursday, July 2. Post time for each of those racing programs is set for 6 p.m.
Kentucky Derby (GI) winner Mine That Bird was snoozing in his stall when the lights came on, unaffected by the illuminated barn area. At 7, he went to the track with regular morning partner Charlie Figueroa aboard and jogged once around the wrong way.
“He’s doing great; I like what I see,” trainer Chip Woolley said. “He’ll continue to jog a day and walk a day until we begin to let him ‘lope’ on Monday.”
Woolley got the track at 5:30 on Monday, a little earlier than usual, to check out the lights. Mine That Bird never has raced under the lights and Woolley said he called Mountaineer Casino Racetrack to be sure the Aug. 1 West Virginia Derby (Grade II) would be run during the day.
“I have had limited experience running horses at night, but if I had one running, I’d like them to see the lights,” Woolley said. “I took a horse to Remington Park one time for trials and he never had seen lights. When he went to the gate, he was just looking up and when they sprang the latch he was not ready. The whole way down the lane he had his head up and never straightened it out to look ahead.”
The morning’s training activity under the temporary lights supplied by Iowa-based Musco Lighting received a strong “thumbs up” from Churchill Downs’ Vice President of Operations David Sweazy.
“We’re very pleased with the bleed over of lights on the racetrack and into the stands, the backside, the gaps and the infield. All early indications are positive. We’ve received feedback from horsemen and they’re pleased,” Sweazy said. “Late in the morning we had an issue with one of the trucks in the infield and a generator blew. That’s why we test these things and have plenty of backups.
“(Musco Lighting) will do some tinkering of the lights on a couple of the turns where there were a few shadows. They’ll do that tonight (between 9-11 p.m.) and we’ll test them again tomorrow (during training between 4-8 a.m.) and be ready for Friday night.”
John Veitch, Chief State Steward for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, also liked what he saw.
“From a safety standpoint, Churchill Downs has done a magnificent job in arranging and preparing the lighting,” Veitch said. “From the standpoint of the commission, our duty is basically safety. It appears to be well organized, well coordinated certainly meets all of our high standards.”
RACHEL ALEXANDRA SIZZLES IN SIX FURLONG WORK – Stonestreet Stables and Harold McCormick’s Rachel Alexandra helped usher in the era of night racing at Churchill Downs when the winner of the Kentucky Oaks and Preakness worked a sparkling six furlongs under temporary lights on Monday at Churchill Downs.
The daughter of Medaglia d’Oro stepped on the track around 5:30 a.m. (EDT) with trainer Steve Asmussen’s second set of horses and worked a very strong six furlongs in 1:12 over a “fast” surface. Exercise rider Dominic Terry was in the saddle as Rachel Alexandra covered the distance in splits of :12.40, :24.40, :36.40, :48.40 and 1:00 and galloped out seven furlongs in 1:24.80.
The work was easily the fastest of four at the distance.
“She went super – she’s doing great,” said Asmussen. “She’s definitely been stronger every week and she looks great.”
Asmussen’s filly has been unflappable throughout the spring and Asmussen said she handled training under the temporary lights just like she handles everything else.
“She’s got a great presence about her,” Asmussen said. “She always seems to take everything in stride so well. She comes back so sure of herself.”
Majority owner Jess Jackson of Stonestreet Stables had earlier mentioned the $300,000 Mother Goose (GI) at 1 1/8 miles on June 27 at Belmont Park as a possible first start for Rachel Alexandra since her historic win over males in the Preakness on May 16. Asmussen said the choice of a race for the filly’s next start was still being assessed.
MUSCO LIGHTING HAS INTERNATIONAL, LOCAL RESUME – The Iowa-based company that is providing the temporary lights that illuminated Churchill Downs for Monday’s first-ever training session under the lights at the home of the Kentucky Derby has an impressive resume of both international and local projects.
Chances are most of the people who will attend Friday’s first “Downs After Dark” night racing program under the historic Twin Spires have already been bathed in light generated by Iowa-based Musco Lighting.
The company installed the permanent lighting at the University of Louisville’s Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, located just a couple of blocks away from the track..
And Gary Gordon, Musco Lighting’s Director of Field Services who is overseeing the temporary lighting for the next three weeks at Churchill Downs, says the lights that are in place around the one-mile main track and its mile chute have been used on some other familiar projects.
“The same lights we are using at historic Churchill Downs have been used for lighting at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon following the 9-11 tragedy, the presidential inauguration, sporting events such as the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, NASCAR events Daytona International Speedway and Kentucky Speedway, college football games at Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and movies like ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Titanic” and “Seabiscuit.’”
Most trainers, exercise riders and jockeys expressed satisfaction with both the brightness and quality of the lighting when training opened at 5 a.m.
Gordon said the track lighting is equivalent to using 20,383 60-watt household light builds. There are 394 halide fixtures in use for a total of 1,223 kilowatts of power.
“The lighting is made up from three 120-foot poles, 11 rooftop structures, six eight-frames, 15 temporary light poles down the chute and in front of the Twin Spires and eight trucks in the infield to help light the backstretch and turns,” said Gordon. “We’ve done lighting at other racetracks before: Calder Park in Australia, Woodbine Race Course in Toronto and The Meadowlands in New Jersey, to name a few.”
Churchill Downs had included lighting for the track in its original plans for the track’s $121 million renovation that was launched in late 2001 and completed in April 2005. But the lights were removed from the project as some $5 million was carved from the original package of $126 million in improvements because of uncertain economic conditions in the aftermath of the 9/1l terrorist attacks of 200l. But power connections were installed atop the Jockey Club Suites and the track’s rebuilt clubhouse to allow for later installation of lighting, and those fixtures were utilized in Musco’s set-up of the temporary lights that will be use at the track over the next three weekends.
“Our biggest challenges during set-up occurred with the large crane on the track; it took a lot of time to change positions to put the lighting on the rooftops of the grandstand,” said Gordon. “Obviously, we worked around the schedule of live racing and training hours. Everyone at the track has been excellent to work with.”
Tickets and reservations for dining and “Date Night” entertainment and dining packages for Friday’s “Downs After Dark” racing are available by calling (502) 636-4400. That includes a specially priced pass for all three nights of racing for $15. Friday’s admission will be $10 and admission is $6 on June 26 and July 2, so the three-night pass offers savings of $7 on admission to all three night racing