By Bradford Cummings
As the state of Kentucky continues to spit in the eye of the Thoroughbred industry, it is essential the power brokers and decision makers capitalize on the few openings available to improve our product and bring racing to the casual fan. And quite frankly, until this summer there seemed to be little outside of the usual steps taken to grow our sport. That is why Churchill Downs' extremely successful Downs After Dark has been such a bright spot for the historic racing landmark.
Many racing fans chortle at calling nighttime racing at Churchill out of the box thinking. Night racing has been part of the sport of kings for years. But for those of you high-fallutin naysayers, the magic of those three nights this summer came out of an understanding that racing to the average fan is about more than what's on the track. What few in this business grasp onto is this sport's greatest advantage is also its greatest disadvantage, the long delays between races. What you do with that gap clearly defines the experience for the casual fan and proved to be the difference between a one-night flash in the pan and a successful budding enterprise.
The thought process behind Downs After Dark actually began in 2001 when permanent lighting was part of Churchill's expansion plan. But after 9/11 and the popular concern that the economy would tank, the lights were cut from the funding package. But as they say, the dream never died and remained in the plans to explore down the road.
Fast forward to last year when the folks at CDI decided to revisit the idea of a nighttime extravaganza. Looking at their properties across the country, it seemed only logical to test market the concept with temporary lighting at their flagship track. But even in test mode, they had the foresight to know night racing alone would not expand their fan base over several nights.
“We asked ourselves, what can we do to trigger those fans that may have attended Derby and Oaks to come back,” said Darren Rogers, senior director of communications and media services.
With this mantra, Churchill set up an evening for people with a wide variety of interests. For those with more expensive tastes, options included everything from high-end dinners cooked by celebrity chefs to dinner and dancing packages complete with multi-course meals. And for those who were not so picky, happy hour pricing and live music all night long gave the track a nightlife feel and an air of excitement that in some ways was better than those historic first Saturdays in May.
And yet, after the first event, those in charge of the evening's festivities found themselves conflicted on the night's story. As Rogers told the Paulick Report, “We knew this could be something special. And we knew at the end of the night, we messed it up.” While attendance expectations ranged from 12,000 – 30,000, Rogers insisted they should have been better prepared and continued to take full responsibility for the shortcomings and long beverage lines.
But it's not if a mistake is made that shows true colors, it's how well you respond and clean up the mess. With those parameters in mind, Churchill taught us all a virtual master class in altering public opinion and turning lemons into lemonade.
They took out full page ads in both major Louisville newspapers apologizing for the mistakes and promising to make things better. They tripled their food and beverage staff, lowered ticket prices, offered dollar drinks and even had executives work behind the bars shelling out drinks and hot dogs to patrons.
And yet still, the question remained, “How much will the food and beverage blunders of the first week affect the second night?” The answer: not by much at all. The second night, exactly a week after the first, brought in only 388 fewer fans, proving they had effectively neutralized the bad word of mouth from the first night. Even better, the same magic was there from the week prior.
“Our original plan was to scale back the ancillaries the second night,” said Rogers. But they solidified after that night, Downs After Dark was as much about the nightlife as it was about the racing. “If you weren't here, it is very difficult to explain to people,” said Rogers. And as most know, their reward for sticking with the concept was a record 33,481 fans on the final evening, the most for any Churchill Downs date not called Derby or Oaks.
While they are still going through the handle numbers for the three nights, the early returns prove the theory that night racing was about more than the horses on the track. While the first two nights were significantly above the average race day, attendance was nearly four times more than usual. And if you were judging Downs After Dark on handle alone, the third day of record attendance was a disaster, barely performing above the average for a day of 7,500. There are factors that help explain these numbers with Belmont's twilight racing being the only action for bettors to play the first and second night and there being nothing accompanying the final night. But still it is abundantly clear that night racing at the Downs is not a night geared for the hardcore horseplayer.
When looking to the future, Rogers told the Paulick Report there was no option not on the table at this point. It is too soon to give hard numbers on the business figures, but they are clearly gearing up for another round of this extremely successful experiment by asking how to take the next step.
Will they install permanent lights? It's certainly a possibility, although the cost is prohibitive and may delay a final decision. If you want to be of influence on this decision, Churchill is running a poll on their website and one lucky voter will receive a box seat for six at next year's Derby. Of course, all decisions of this magnitude will have to be brought to the board of directors, but it would be difficult to believe there wouldn't be support for more of the same success. When asked if a night Derby was on its way, Rogers said, “There are currently no serious discussions on the Derby being at night.” On the other hand, Rogers reiterated “There is no option that is not on the table at this point.”
Could Downs After Dark be the precursor to a primetime Derby that would benefit the sport with primetime ratings? Only time will tell. But one thing is for sure. Churchill Downs has stumbled upon a winner with this new format. It may not be a hit with the institutional gamblers, but if we are to grow this sport it is important we give the average fan what they want: to be entertained. We have a feeling Churchill will gladly plead guilty to that charge.
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