EARLIER: After dark, Downs at its best

-A A +A
By Brent Schanding

If you weren't among the estimated 28,011 horse-racing enthusiasts, Southern socialites and downright drunkards who attended last week's debut of "Downs After Dark" -- don't worry. This Friday you can repent when Churchill Downs hosts the second-coming of three night-time racing sessions aimed at luring larger crowds to the struggling track.

Last week an unprecedented amount of folks -- roughly 19,000 more than any regular day meeting -- came out for the nocturnal event. (For those who care, that's compared to about 150,000 who cram the stands for Derby.)

Most were sweaty, few were sober and while some left poorer, nobody likely left with regrets. After all, they helped make history -- or what I'm dubbing here because of its shear equine significance: Horse-tory.

Officially, Churchill's first race after sundown posted at 9:40 p.m., with favorite Final Copy emerging as the winner. At least that's what the jumbo screen relayed to me.

I was sandwiched in the booze line waiting nearly 35 minutes for a gin and tonic, only to learn later that the "liquor-only" line had formed at the opposite end of the stands. (As it turns out, everyone likes a "wet" track.)

Yes, bar staffing at the red-carpet event surely stumbled this first-time out of the gate. Organizers believed they were prepared to deal with 20,000+ fans. However, they greatly underestimated that race-goers would wait for the stadium-sized lights to illuminate before actually getting "lit." Most horded drinks from the time the gates opened at 6 p.m. -- hours before dusk -- creating panic among extreme partiers that pony kegs of Budweiser would be scratched before evening's end.

Other areas at the track also were staffed inadequately.

Queues to place bets were longer than return lines at Old Navy the day after Christmas. Longer-than-average restroom waits forced the more brazen women to seek refuge in the men's room. Paddock havoc also made the track's main corral seem more like the local Kroger store at Armageddon. (You know the scene when idiots rush out to get milk all at the same time because one forecaster predicts light snow.)

Imagine what it would be like to stuff roughly all the people of Shelbyville into a space about the size of the Walmart Supercenter. Now imagine the air conditioning has malfunctioned and that everybody is drunk. That's what "Downs After Dark" was like.

I'm not griping. In fact, it was great, and I'm glad to be among those who marked the first-ever night race at the 135-year-old track. I cheered when the pack of thundering thoroughbreds rounded the final turn to sprint for the finish with the backdrop of a night sky. I jeered when the sloppiest of sorority girls fell out of her high heels. I rubbed -- and shoved -- elbows with the best (and worst) of them, leaving shy of midnight, shortly after the last race, only because the humidity and onset of a severe sunburn swayed me to throw in the chips.

It was a learning experience -- for everyone. But more importantly, because I handicapped the evening, I'm sure my odds of enjoying this week's "Downs After Dark" will likely improve.

Here's some trackside notes that may be helpful if you're planning to attend:

Eat before the meet: Unless you're a jockey or a horse, I suggest you dine before making your Downs debut. Light fare at the track is available -- but for a heavy price. If you must munch, grab a bite from the cookout in the paddock area when others are trackside for the race. Note: If you're hitting Taco Bell or White Castle afterwards, make sure you get a jump on the crowd.

Park like a pro: If you get there early enough, parking is free in the Longfield Avenue lot. However, those spots fill up quickly, and nearby residents will try to gouge you for as much as $10 to park on their lawns. Resist the temptation. Churchill Downs offers free parking at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium and operates free round-trip shuttle service throughout the evening.

Pretend you're "somebody:" General admission this Friday is $6, but tell the ticket-taker you're an absent-minded Twin Spires Club member who forgot his privilege card and enter for $1. (Trust me, it works.) Last week, I bargained a reserved box-seat sticker from an exiting patron's shirt for a mere $5. Daddy always said, "Money saved is a Miller earned."

Speaking of beer: Designate a booze buddy; flirty females seem to work best. Although most bartenders at the track exercise a two-drink limit per trip, the more attractive women seem to get loaded down with liquor. Often they get to cut in lines, and sometimes they even come back with change in their pockets. Make friends with these women.

Buy the Daily Racing Form: Not only does it come in handy for handicapping the ponies, it doubles as a fan when the heat index rises above 90 degrees.

Sport the seersucker and don your hats: Aside from church and funerals, there aren't many reasons to get dressed up in Kentucky -- this is one of them. Gentlemen, cut your mullets; Ladies, save your Daisy Dukes for the infield.

There's other stuff you might want to know. For that, call Churchill Downs at (502) 636-4400. If you've got any good race tips, contact me at bschanding@lcni.com.