A BIG THUMBS UP FOR NIGHT RACING AT CHURCHILL DOWNS – More than a few folks were moving a bit slower than usual on the Churchill Downs backstretch Friday morning after the third “Downs After Dark” night racing program attracted a crowd of 33,481.

    Trainer Jinks Fires wasn’t one of them as he was stepping lively after his Iftheshoefits won the 11th race that went off at 11:23 p.m. EDT. “A great night,” said the still-beaming Fires.

    His sentiment was echoed by many veteran Churchill Downs conditioners who would not be surprised to see more racing under the stars beneath the Twin Spires.

    “They got something that works,” Steve Penrod said. “No question lights will be permanent. As long as they make each night an event, it will work. Last night was a perfect evening with the weather and it was very impressive.”

    “I loved it,” said Buff Bradley, who came to the races even though he did not have a horse running on the 11-race card. “I didn’t think they’d have as many as they had the first two nights, but as long as it remains a novelty on Friday night I think it will do well … I can see people saying ‘I’ll meet you at Churchill Downs’ and it will be the thing to do.”

    The first “Downs After Dark” program on June 19 attracted 28,011 fans with another 27,623 turning out on June 26 for a three-night total of 89,115.

    “I went to all three of them and I thought they were great,” Hal Wiggins said. “It was a good move. It looked to me like there were a lot of people really enjoying themselves.

    “I don’t know what the per capita (wagering) was and it may have been down, but I think the handle was way up and you can’t gripe about that. My hat’s off to Churchill Downs for doing something different.

    “It used to be you could just open the gates and the people would come, but now there is a lot of competition. They had some problems the first night, but they rectified those things the second night.”

    Does Wiggins envision lights becoming part of the future here and being a big hit?

    “I would think so,” Wiggins said of the special programs, “as long as they don’t over-saturate it.”

TENSAS YUCATAN HOPES TO FIND ELUSIVE CHURCHILL DOWNS SUCCESS – James Spence’s Tensas Yucatan has been a terror in her home state of Louisiana, posting a record of 8-4-0 in 14 races.

That success has not translated to Churchill Downs, a fact trainer Ralph Nicks hopes to reverse on Sunday when he sends Tensas Yucatan postward in the 28th running of the $100,000-added Locust Grove Handicap (Grade III).

A 5-year-old daughter of Ide, Tensas Yucatan finished ninth on the main track in the 2007 La Troienne (Grade III) and came back that fall to finish 10th on the turf in the Mrs. Revere (Grade II).

“When she ran here in the spring as a 3-year-old, she got beat up pretty bad in that race,” Nicks said. “When we brought her back in the fall, she caught a course that was a little soft and she really does her best on firm turf.”

Four of Tensas Yucatan’s eight victories have come on firm turf and she is 2-for-2 at the Locust Grove distance of a mile. She will be ridden by Brian Hernandez Jr. on Sunday and break from post position one, carrying 116 pounds.

MINE THAT BIRD RIDER SITUATION UNRESOLVED – Double Eagle Ranch and Buena Suerte Equine’s Mine That Bird remains without a confirmed rider for the West Virginia Derby (Grade II) on Aug. 1 at Mountaineer.

    “I am looking for a rider that will fit my horse best,” trainer Chip Woolley said Friday morning. Woolley started the search for a rider when he did not receive a commitment from Kentucky Derby winning rider Calvin Borel for the race at Mountaineer.

    Mine That Bird’s schedule after the West Virginia Derby is the Shadwell Travers (Grade I) at Saratoga on Aug. 29 and the Breeders’ Cup Classic (Grade I) at Santa Anita on Nov. 7 with the possibility of a race between the Travers and Breeders’ Cup.

    Mine That Bird galloped twice around Friday on the main track before the renovation break with exercise rider Rudy Gallegos up.

    “I know we are working Monday morning,” Woolley said. “I’m not sure who will work him.”    

BET OR NO BET SWEEPSTAKES REWARDS FIVE GAMBLING SOULS – One of the features of the three “Downs After Dark” programs was the “Bet or No Bet” sweepstakes in which five names would be drawn at random each night for the chance to win $100 cash or put a $1,000 win bet on a horse in a designated race.

    Three of the 15 took the cash, but five others cashed in big time when their horses won. In all, the five winners took home $15,600 with the biggest payday going to David Sherry of Louisville whose $1,000 bet turned into $7,900 when Candid Image won the seventh race on June 26.

    The other four big winners also were from Louisville. Billy Warrick won $2,400 on June 19 and on Thursday night, Michelle Clubb was the big winner with a $2,800 return. Amy Linton and Laura Burnam had to sweat out lengthy photos to claim $1,500 and $2,000 checks, respectively, in dead-heat victories.

BARN TALK – With three racing programs left in the Spring Meet, Julien Leparoux holds a 62-56 advantage over Calvin Borel in the race for leading rider. Friday’s twilight program will be the last for Leparoux, who has commitments out of town on Saturday and Sunday. Leparoux has seven mounts Friday and Borel has eight. Borel will be riding in New York on Saturday but returns for Sunday’s closing-day card in which he has 10 mounts … Churchill Downs announcer/commentator Mark Johnson will be Jill Byrne’s guest on Saturday, July 4 for the final “Get in the Game” handicapping seminar at noon (all times EDT) in the paddock.   Johnson, who was chosen to succeed the late Luke Kruytbosch following an international search by Churchill Downs, made history as the first announcer to call both the Kentucky Derby and Britain’s famed Epsom Derby, the race upon which the “Run for the Roses” was modeled.  In the event of poor weather, the popular “Get in the Game” handicapping seminar will be held in Silks on the second floor of the clubhouse.  

MILESTONE WATCH -- William Connelly, who has 999 career victories, goes for No. 1,000 late Friday when he sends out Knownforstone in the 11th race at Churchill Downs. Connelly’s last chance to reach the milestone at the current meet if he does not get it Friday will be Seaside Princess in Saturday’s first race.

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