by Richard E. Glover, Jr., National HBPA Director of Communications
A few recent editorials have suggested that it would be a good idea to move the Kentucky Derby to a night post time in order to maximize the potential audience. The NFL recently made a similar move with the league's draft, and the first prime time NFL draft offering - round one of the 2010 NFL draft last Thursday evening on ESPN and the NFL channel - saw a 30% increase in viewership over the previous year.
Last summer, Churchill Downs experimented with night racing on a handful of evenings. The experiment proved successful enough that the track invested $4 million to install permanent lights for night racing. Four night racing cards are planned for the current Churchill Downs meet that runs through July 4th.
Though Churchill Downs is still in the early stages of experimenting with night racing, the lure of a potentially larger television audience may prove difficult to resist. A larger audience, in theory, should lead to higher wagering revenue. Moreover, it should make it easier to sell advertising and sponsorships, as well as making it possible to increase the prices on that advertising and those sponsorships.
It is hard to forecast what a nighttime Kentucky Derby would mean to on-track attendance and handle, but it is hard to imagine the impact would be significantly negative. When it comes to the horses, the impact could be both positive and negative.
The positive could be in cooler temperatures, but excessive heat has rarely been a significant factor in Derby weather. The negative, however, could come in the form of some horses failing to deal well with both the lights and the change to their normal race-day schedule.
Let's face it, dealing with the Derby crowd that usually hovers in the 150,000 range is already too much for some horses to handle. Add night racing and lights (which some horses tend to shy away from when they are not accustomed to them), and there would be an even greater likelihood that one or a few of the Derby entrants might get upset before the race or do something during the race that could negatively impact theirs or other entrants' performances.
The question is whether the possibility of upsetting a few horses so that they don't run their best race is important enough to forgo the possibility of significantly more exposure and viewership of and wagering on the Kentucky Derby.
What do you think? Would running the Kentucky Derby at night be a good things or bad thing? And why?