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On September 29, 2018, I attended my first Downs After Dark at Churchill Downs. It was one of the most fun experiences that I have had at a racetrack. Apart from the tremendous racing (let’s go, Biscuits!), there were several other activities occurring on the Churchill Downs that helped to bring new (and younger) patrons to the track. The night’s events included:
The great racing and the supplemental activities attracted a sizeable crowd. The non-thoroughbred events even helped bring in several people that otherwise would not have come to the track. Our group alone was made up of 15 people, all 30 or younger and almost a 50/50 split of men and women. This was such a big event that even some out-of-towners that came in for it.
There were several ticket options, from general admission to all-inclusive drink/food packages. We chose Millionaires Row, which was great! The location of Millionaires Row is about 4-5 stories up from ground level, which gives a very different perspective for race viewing. There’s lovely indoor seating with reserved tables and an outdoor balcony for race viewing. We also had catered food included in our tickets, and there were servers available for drink orders as well as standalone bars.
The night’s four stakes races were excellent. The first, the $100,000 Jefferson Cup, was close, with longshot Discovered hanging on until the very end before Hot Springs won for trainer Steve Asmussen and jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr. The following race, the Grade 3 Ack Ack, was another fantastic finish, as Seeking the Soul, Nice Not Nice, and Giant Expectations all came to the line together, with Seeking the Soul getting the win for trainer Dallas Stewart and jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr. Next up was the Grade 3 Lukas Classic Stakes, where Breeders Cup Classic hopefuls finished first and second. Strong favorite Mind Your Biscuits won easily, with Toast of New York coming off an eight-month layoff to rally for the place. The final stakes race of the evening was the Grade 1 President of the United Arab Emirates Cup Stakes (for Arabian purebreds). Heavy favorite Quick Sand AA won for fun.
The allure of the Downs After Dark is that you can bring a group of people to the track and there will be something for everyone, even if they are not necessarily racing fans. This makes it much easier getting them to the track. We had many in our group that had never seen live horse racing before and did not know what to expect. We taught them how to navigate the program and place bets, and they thoroughly enjoyed themselves. These out-of-the-box events really seem to help grow the game, which is the ultimate goal.
A great scheduling effort was having Downs After Dark kick off right after the University of Louisville football game. Churchill Downs is just a short walk from Cardinal Stadium, so Louisville and Florida State fans alike made their way over after the game. I noticed numerous Florida State fans in attendance that must have come up for the game and stayed for the racing. These kinds of ideas are needed to help grow the game. The Downs After Dark schedule also allowed their four stakes races to go off without interference from several other big days going on throughout the country (such as the Breeders’ Cup preps at Belmont Park and Santa Anita Park).
I fully endorse Downs After Dark and encourage other tracks to try similar ideas, and for fans, I cannot recommend a race track experience more than Downs After Dark. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and most importantly, it helps grow the sport that we all love!
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