Let there be lights. Following the testing of temporary track lighting fixtures during early morning training hours on Monday and Tuesday, Churchill Downs officials declared the home of the Kentucky Derby ready for the first of three special dates of night racing billed as “Downs After Dark.”
Friday night’s premiere of “Downs After Dark” will mark the first time in the 135-year history of the racetrack that racing will be presented at night under the lights. Other “Downs After Dark” programs are scheduled for Friday, June 26 and Thursday, July 2.
A total of 104 horses have been entered to compete on Friday’s historic 11-race program. First post is scheduled for 6 p.m. (all times Eastern) and the final four races will be run under the stars. Sunset is scheduled for 9:09 p.m. with Race 8 to coincide with the end of civil twilight at 9:40 p.m. The final race of the night has an 11:11 p.m. post time.
Churchill Downs will present upscale evenings at the races and provide added entertainment and unique food offerings for on-track patrons as the historic Twin Spires is transformed into a nighttime entertainment hot spot for the three “Downs After Dark” programs.
“Racing is at the core of everything we do at Churchill Downs, and it remains as important to us today as when we first opened our gates in 1875,” said Kevin Flanery, senior vice president of Churchill Downs Incorporated. “But one hundred and thirty-five years changes a lot of things, and as we seek to redefine the racetrack experience and keep our sport relevant for today’s customers, we are excited to offer the night racing experience under the Twin Spires for the very first time. We hope our customers will enjoy the upscale evenings we have planned, which will offer our guests the perfect blend of a night on the town and the excitement of Thoroughbred racing.”
Admission gates will open two hours before first post at 4 p.m. and patrons immediately will notice a new-look Churchill Downs. There’ll be Red Carpet entrances at Gates 10 and 17 with the Voice-Tribune’s Angie Fenton and Kentucky Derby 2009 Chief Party Officer Nick “RiNickulous” Ferrara, and the facility will be decorated with colorful buntings, mood lighting and seasonal flowers.
Many areas, including the paddock area, will have the look and feel of an upscale nightclub transformed by celebrated designer Barry Wooley, complete with sleek and comfortable seating options, specialty bars and food stations. The usual racetrack menu favorites will be joined by tasty ala carte hors d’oeuvres such as grilled shrimp, beef and chicken skewers and vegetable kabobs.
A Budweiser Select Beer Garden will be positioned near Gate 17 and “Friday Happy Hours” will be extended an extra hour from 4-8 p.m., complete with $2 Budweiser Select, $2 hot dogs and $3 margaritas and daiquiris.
To set the tone for the party, high energy music will be provided between live races in the paddock area by regional favorite Endless Summer Band from 4-8:30 p.m. and will be followed by internationally renowned VJ 2ndNature, who’ll mix modern rock, pop and hip-hop tunes with accompanying video. Meanwhile, parties for VIP guests on the Clubhouse and Jockey Club Suites balconies will be treated to the jazz sounds of TA2 Latin Sounds and Swing 39.
To satisfy the appetite, customers can take advantage of scrumptious multi-course premium dining packages. A “Date Night” dinner and dancing package is available for $59.90 in Millionaires’ Row 4 and 6 ($95 with full bar) and showcases tasty appetizers (antipasto platters and an amuse bouche of shrimp tango), a main course (beef sirloin and chicken criolla accompanied by a selection of sides) and a flambé action station with classic desserts.
There are also a limited number of high-end, elegant “Dinner by Design” packages for $150 in the Stakes, Aristides and Directors Rooms. They feature a five-course dinner designed by Tony Mantuano, Levy Restaurant’s award-winning and critically acclaimed executive chef of Chicago’s only four-star Italian restaurant Spiaggia. The special dinner also includes wine pairings and a full bar package.
There’ll also be lounge areas and mood lighting positioned throughout the facility for after-dinner cocktails, conversation and, of course, handicapping.
A special $100,000 guaranteed pool for the Pick 4 on Races 4-7 highlights the wagering menu. The challenging wager that requires bettors to pick the winners of four consecutive races kicks off at 7:29 p.m. The series is comprised of a five-furlong turf sprint for 10 fillies and mares; a maiden special weight for 10 two-year-old fillies; a maiden special weight for 10 three-year-olds and up at 1 1/16 miles on the Matt Winn Turf Course; and a seven-furlong sprint for eight 3-year-olds who sport a $30,000 claiming price.
There also will be Pick 4s that cover the first and last four races. Churchill Downs’ 19% takeout rate for the Pick 4 – and all exotic wagers – is amongst the lowest in North America.
Also, a second Z-5/Super Hi-5 has been added that night. In addition to its usual spot on the 11th and final race, the popular wager that requires bettors to pick the top five finishers in order on a given race, has been added to Race 6 (8:32 p.m.).
Five allowance and maiden special weight races have been named in honor of horses whose names feature a nighttime theme. They include 1953 Kentucky Derby winner Dark Star, 1878 Kentucky Derby victor Day Star, 1991 Kentucky Oaks heroine Lite Light, 1997 Stephen Foster Handicap champ City by Night and 1958 Clark Handicap conqueror My Night Out.
The featured Dark Star, a $52,700 second level allowance for 3-year-olds and up (Race 10 at 10:42 p.m.), will showcase the much-anticipated return of a former top Kentucky Derby prospect. Flying Pegasus, who was runner-up to Charitable Man in last fall’s Futurity (Grade II) at Belmont Park and Friesan Fire in this spring’s Risen Star (GIII) at Fair Grounds, heads the seven-furlong sprint for owner James C. Spence, trainer Ralph Nicks and jockey Robby Albarado. The 3-year-old son of 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus hasn’t raced since a sixth-place finish in the March 14 Louisiana Derby (GII).
HRTV (DISH Network channel 404 and Insight Communications channel 564 in Louisville) will be onsite with reporters Peter Lurie and Caton Bredar to broadcast the historic occasion.
General admission for Friday’s historic debut of “Downs After Dark” is $10, although members of the track’s free customer rewards program, the Twin Spires Club, and seniors age 60 and up will continue to receive their bargain $1 admission price. Also, all season passes will be honored at admission gates.
General admission will drop to $6 for the next two nighttime cards on Friday, June 26 and Thursday, July 2 (the start of a long holiday weekend that doubles as closing weekend for the Spring Meet). A discounted general admission pass for entrance on all three nights is available for $15 (a $7 savings).
For Friday’s “Downs After Dark” premiere, customers also can purchase a special $15 package that includes general admission, a box seat in the third-floor clubhouse and an official program.
Fans can reserve seats or purchase dining packages by calling (502) 636-4400. For more information, log onto www.churchilldowns.com.
Parking for “Downs After Dark” is free in the Longfield Avenue lot, with on-site parking available on a first-come, first-served basis. Valet parking will be available. Churchill Downs also will offer free parking at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium starting at 4 p.m. and will run free round-trip shuttle service throughout the evening (drop off will be at Gate 17 and pick up will be at Gate 1).
According to the National Weather Service, Friday’s Louisville forecast calls for mostly cloudy skies and a high near 93 degrees with a low around 69. There’s a 30-percent chance of showers and thunderstorms mainly after 2 p.m. (a tenth to a quarter of an inch possible) with an 8-11 mph south wind.
SPECIAL NIGHT RACING NOTES – The majority of Churchill Downs’ transformation for the night racing programs will take place after Thursday’s races and early Friday morning . . . Post times for the three “Downs After Dark” racing programs: Race 1 (6 p.m.), Race 2 (6:29 p.m.), Race 3 (6:59 p.m.), Race 4 (7:29 p.m.), Race 5 (8 p.m.), Race 6 (8:32 p.m.), Race 7 (9:05 p.m.), Race 8 (9:40 p.m.), Race 9 (10:12 p.m.), Race 10 (10:42 p.m.) and Race 11 (11:11 p.m.) . . . Scratch time for nighttime racing programs will be 11 a.m. on racedays.