Night Fever - By Dan Liebman

(Originally published in the July 11, 2009 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

In the midst of a stinging defeat for expanded gaming in Kentucky, it was discovered that people will still attend a racetrack - without slots - and have fun doing so. But not for the same old stale product.

Churchill Downs installed a temporary lighting system, and more patrons than anyone predicted turned out to watch three racing cards at night under the Twin Spires.
True, the Louisville, Ky., racetrack stumbled out of the gate, when the 28,011 that attended Friday, June 19, were met by long lines that left many disgruntled. But racetrack officials apologized, promised it would not happen again, and a week later 27,623 poured through the turnstiles to be greeted by improved customer service. Better yet, on Thursday, July 2, a crowd of 33,481 showed up to begin their holiday weekend with Thoroughbred racing.

True, some never opened their wallets to wager, but that is OK. On-track handle was up considerably, but it was also important to attract young people who preferred to listen to music, drink dollar beers, and visit a racetrack rather than a bar or nightclub.

A patron who had a good time not only will return but will encourage friends and family to join him the next time. And, while handle helps purses, a racetrack keeps more from admissions, programs, and beer than from a wager (which has to be shared with other groups), which helps cover expenses and encourages track officials to try other creative ideas.

Some wonder if the success of night racing might lead to a discussion of the Derby being run at night. This would not be done to attract more fans—the physical plant is already bulging on Derby day—but to attract a larger television audience.

While it might not make sense to alter the entrenched Derby, it could make sense to consider night racing for the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. The 2009 Derby registered a 7.3 national television rating overall, but a 9.8 rating during the 6-7 p.m. race portion of the broadcast. The Breeders’ Cup has a more difficult situation, with racing spread over two days and multiple networks. Still, the 2008 overall rating of .7 is anemic by anyone’s measure.

It is hard not to think more viewers would see the Breeders’ Cup races if they were run during prime time. Just imagine the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) being aired at halftime of Monday Night Football.

Churchill Downs knows where the lights can be rented.

Get a handle

We were reminded again of the fervor with which Hong Kong racing fans wager when the largest handle there in six years occurred July 1 at Sha Tin. The crowd of 63,369, and more importantly, at 116 off-track facilities and through in-home wagering, bet HK$1.22 billion on the 11-race card, about $157.3 million.
That amount is similar to what was wagered internationally last year on the two Breeders’ Cup cards, when $155,740,327 was bet on 21 races.

The difference is the Hong Kong Jockey Club only staged 78 days of racing during its 2008-09 season, and residents there can only wager legally on horse racing and soccer, as well as play the country’s lottery. For the 78 cards, wagering in Hong Kong was down only 1.3% from a year ago.

In contrast, statistics released July 5 by Equibase showed wagering on racing in the United States fell 16.9% in June, continuing a trend that also saw purses drop 10.3% from the same month last year. For the first six months of the year, all-sources handle on U.S. races is down 10.5%, and purses have dropped 6%.

With high unemployment, and Americans clearly spending less, the fact handle is down only 10.5% may actually be interpreted as a good sign. Like commercial breeders anticipating the yearling sale season, it may be a time in which a negative has to be perceived as a positive.


Leave a Comment:


Keep the Derby and BC during the day.

While many people will go out to a racetrack club at you think those same people who club at night are going then to stay at home to watch a horse race?

Good grief, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out...leave the big days alone and promote the track as a viable date/night out.


07 Jul 2009 3:00 PM

Dan, your comments on marketing racing are all valid and important. The thoroughbred industry has to stop asking for government help and start marketing its exciting product. Are the Triple Crown and Breeders Cup races aimed at the current fan base or at the general public? Given that the current fan base is simply not sufficient to support the industry, racing has to aim these events at the general public. With this new mindset, it becomes much easier to think out of the current box: Having major races at night is a great idea. Why not start with the Friday Breeders Cup races this year? They could begin at 6 PM California time. Why not take a cue from American Idol and have viewers “vote” on the horses before the races? Some might take a hint and place bets online. No one I know in the non-racing public wants to spend a half-hour between races watching those awful vignettes; 15 minutes is enough, and races could be alternated between turf and dirt (or even alternate racetracks) to accommodate this, providing 6 races in a 2 hour program. For an industry that used to have so many famous people connected to it, providing instant public recognition (see the history of Hollywood Park and Del Mar), racing seems to have lost such luminaries. Virtually none of the Hollywood set was at last year’s Breeders Cup. The industry has to use its connections to get these people involved, again.  

07 Jul 2009 3:06 PM

Racing during prime time is a better idea than continuing to fall all over ourselves to attract foreign entrants to the BC.  Maybe the BC should look into providing a more comprehensive past performance for foreign based runners than the sparten stuff now available.  From a handicapping perspective, the BC races are being reduced to a guessing game by the two headed monster of foreign runners with foreign pp's and the increasing prevalent question as to whether this dirt horse will run up to par on a synthetic track.  Handle will continue to suffer and more so until these problems are addressed and resolved.

07 Jul 2009 10:51 PM

Night Racing has been talked about and long overdue for decades.   So it's about time that somebody finally got a clue and got it going even if it was just a Test run.

Although I'm not a fan of the Friday card of Breeders Cup weekend, I do like DonW's idea that if your going to have it, maybe it should be held at night.

Not necessarily as late of a first post of 6PM because that would be 9PM on the East Coast.

More like a 4PM West and a 7PM East starting time makes a little more sense.   While keeping the Saturday card like normal with a 1 PM post.

But, also Only if it could be completed in No more than 3 hours.

I think that unless people are drinking then the majority of them only have a 2-3 hour attention span anyways.

Which I believe i've heard is why Tennis is actually starting to lose it's fan base too.  

4-5 hours to determine a Wimbledon Champ.   I might tune in for it since it's only once per year, but Not untill after the first 3 hours has already past.

I'm Not that big of a fan to waste my entire day for it.

08 Jul 2009 5:31 AM

Yeah.  And then the races would start after midnight in Europe.  

Horses have been racing in the afternoon and training to race in the afternoon.  It's different at night as anyone who has tried to figure out Meadowlands form soon realizes, or should realize anyway.  Suddenly racing at night is much worse than switching to polytrack.

08 Jul 2009 8:38 AM
Soldier Course

Speaking of "anemic", I was surprised at Churchill Downs' bland, ho-hum reaction to the overwhelming success of its trial run for night racing.

Talk about throwing the proverbial cold water. Remarks like "Well, we'll have to see ...", and "Permanent lights will be expensive" almost suggest that CD didn't want this effort to succeed.

Where was the SHOUT-OUT that this happy ending deserved?

08 Jul 2009 10:29 AM

By any measure night racing at Churchill Downs was a success.  More than a trip to the track, what took place was a “happening” in a city underserved for quality events.  The price was right for admission, brew and off track entertainment; so much so, I doubt if Churchill was able to muster much, if any, bottom line.  As you point out, however, if the longer-term objective of nurturing new fans is met, chalk it up to a cost of doing business.  Yes, trial was initiated by the uninitiated but, for one, I wonder just how much impact the evenings will have towards developing new generations of race goers.  Not that everyone must recognize a troubled trip for a good pick-3 single next time around but I fear nothing remotely like that hit the screen of many of those in attendance.    

08 Jul 2009 11:27 PM

I think we should leave the derby alone but fridays BC races is intriguing but leave Sat's alone. BC at half time of football give me a break!!! BC during halftime of MNF would work more to devalue racing than help it. Could you imagine the coverage by ESPN, it would last about 1 race about 2min for the classic and the the rest of the races all you will see is tape delay clips of the finishes.  I have never known half time a a football game to last more than 30min  and we have to have at least 20min of ad's so the BC in 10min. Huh...? maybe I could take a speed tv watching course as opposed to a speed reading course. Where I do agree they could speed up the time between races as it does seem to lag. I suppose the longer time is to get as many wagers in as possible. I think 30min between races is plenty for most cards but with races like the derby an hour might be the exception due to the large amounts of people trying to wager and not enough terminals to handle such a demand. Night racing can be good but in the right spots.

09 Jul 2009 8:07 PM

The last races of the Breeders Cup should be run at night - no questions asked.

13 Jul 2009 10:44 AM
Bill Yates

Baseball learned in the thirties that playing at night dramatically increased their bottom line, so far seventy years later we’re still waiting for horse racing to follow suite.

14 Jul 2009 12:42 PM

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