Churchill Downs “Downs After Dark” is a new experience for race fans [Sports]

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Churchill Downs’ “Downs After Dark” is designed to incorporate nightlife, racing and dancing as evening falls upon the historic Twin Spires. Attendance for night racing events has averaged 27,898. That is compared to an average attendance of 7,500 for a typical Friday afternoon program. The last Downs After Dark attendance of 27,787 was the largest of the three Downs After Dark events held this year. On-track wagering for that night was $1,286,037, more than double the wagering on a typical Friday afternoon card.

According to track spokesperson, John Asher, Churchill Downs has been thrilled with the Downs After Dark programs.

“It’s working well. We’re still trying to figure out what works the best, and which age groups we should be focused on the most,” said Asher. “First and foremost, it’s an effort, not just for diversification, but an effort to bring people to the race track and experience racing. And experience it in a new way. The Friday night Downs After Dark programs are much different from our regular, daily programs.”

So what is Downs After Dark really like? Put simply, it’s a party in the paddock. The night begins much like any other Friday at the track with happy hour drink specials and a special late first post. 

Couches, comfy chairs, and rattan tables accompany the metal benches and picnic tables usually found in the paddock. The Aristides garden is cloaked in the same theme-colored curtains that cascade down from the upper level balconies overlooking the paddock. Tucked in between the statue of Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day and the entrance to the grandstand, a live band entertains the public maneuvering between the paddock and the betting windows. 

The crowd is a mix of blue and white collar workers, lone retirees and families with young children. It’s a typical crowd you might expect to see at Churchill Downs on any given weekend. People are there to enjoy the horses and the company of good friends.

As the sun begins to set, the atmosphere and the crowd intensify. The track is illuminated in the white glow of artificial light. Colors of pink, purple and green surround the paddock and highlight the upper balconies. The band has been replaced by a first-class DJ that fills the Downs with club music as go-go dancers dance upon pedestals around the Aristides garden. The retirees and families have been joined by an electric crowd of twenty-somethings and teenagers. It is no longer a typical Friday night at the track. 

This is the time for all diehard horse racing enthusiasts to exit the paddock area and scurry to the clubhouse or the suites upstairs. In the paddock, fans will still see the horses saddled and the running of the race on the monitor above, but they will be hard-pressed to hear the call of the race and may have a difficult time working their way through the dancing crowd to the betting window.

Chris Menefee, 21, attended the last two Downs After Dark events. For Menefee, the main draw of Downs After Dark is the atmosphere. 

“I think it’s a crazy environment with a bunch of cute girls and my homies getting drunk and dancing with girls. That’s what I go to the Downs for. It’s awesome! Everybody plans their weekends around it, basically, and it’s always like a must-go. It’s a huge party every Friday.”

A casual survey of patrons in the paddock showed that for this younger population, the majority have come for the party, not the horses. Some twenty-somethings surveyed admitted they were betting, even winning, but there were also those that stated that they were there specifically to meet new people. 

Security Officers Barry Woosley and Danny Payne have chaperoned the last two Downs After Dark events and have diffused a few fights and apprehended some underage drinkers. The two retired Kentucky state police officers are among the many officers at the track quick to handle any disturbances.

“Underage drinking is what we’ve been asked to look for,” said Woosley.

“We’ve got about 40 people up here. That’s just us, so there’s several people around here,” Payne said. “We mingle throughout the crowds and you’ll see them taking people up, the underage drinkers, people that are intoxicated and fighting. When there’s a problem, we take them up to the Louisville Metro Police upstairs and they take charge of them.”

Regarding these issues, Asher said, “It’s been a concern. We’ve upped our number of security people on hand in recent weeks to keep any problems from arising. We’ve been concerned about some younger fans and some of the conduct of the younger fans has the potential to make the experience less enjoyable to some of our more traditional fans, older fans, so we made some changes,” Asher continued.

Some of the changes Churchill Downs made for this last event included raising the price of general admission from $10 to $20 for guests arriving after 10 p.m., requiring those under age 18 arriving after 10 p.m. to be accompanied by a parent, and ceasing beer sales at 10:30. 

“We’ll be looking at some more recommendations and adopting some additional policies as we plan toward next year,” Asher said. “It’s a great experience and we want to make sure it’s a great experience for everyone there, that’s the bottom line.”

Trainer Dale Romans agrees.

“I think Churchill’s done a really good job with it. They keep tweaking it and trying to improve it, and, as long as they don’t overdo it, keep it fresh, I think it will be a good thing.”

But, how does a trainer like Romans feel about it from a business side?

“It makes it difficult for everybody running in the races, but all night racing does,” Romans said. “Whether it’s Turfway in the winter or Hoosier Park, wherever we race at night, it makes it difficult when you have to do a quick turn-around and work the next morning and race horses early Saturday, but that sacrifice is worthwhile. It’s bringing out people and they’re betting money and enjoying the races. I think it’s necessary for the sport to stay on their toes and keep changing and looking for new fresh things that people like and are interested in.”

The opinion of most of those attending Churchill’s Downs After Dark is enthusiastic and positive. An older gentleman leaving the Finish Line Suites remarked to his friends that he’d enjoyed the evening and loved that Churchill Downs was putting on events such as this. That was the same sentiment expressed by a group of thirty and forty-year-olds dancing to the live music on the balconies. 

Die-hard railbirds may not appreciate the club scene and the social crowd, but in a sport that has struggled to increase its fan-base, bringing in this younger crowd on Friday nights may be what the sport needs.

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