Let There Be Light

by Ed Meyer

posted on May 1, 2009 in General Discussion, Kentucky Derby | No Comments >>

I remember the first time they turned off the sun and turned on the lights at the World Series. Game 4, 1971, Pittsburgh. Pirates 4, Orioles 3.

Believe it or not, the NBA once played part of its Finals on weekend afternoons. Ditto for the NCAA with its semifinals at the Final Four. Lights didn’t stain the turf at Notre Dame Stadium until 1982. Six years later, even the Chicago Cubs surrendered at Wrigley Field.

There have been other illuminating sports milestones, but I’ll leave the rest of the list to Thomas Edison fans. I’m here to ask if I’m the only one thinking the lights will be turned on at the Kentucky Derby one day.

“No reason, said trainer D. Wayne Lukas. “The crowds are already great on Saturday (Derby Day) and Friday (Kentucky Oaks Day).”

“For the Kentucky Derby?” trainer Nick Zito asked. “I don’t see it.”

Although in the last decade Churchill Downs has bumped the Derby post time back nearly an hour to its scheduled 6:24 p.m. start this Saturday, the track says there are no plans to push it back two more hours to when many mainstream American sporting events begin.

“I can absolutely tell you the idea of a Kentucky Derby at night has never, ever been raised,” said John Asher, Churchill Downs vice president for racing communications.

Asher might have been motivated to use “never” with “ever” because skepticism is in the air now that portable lights will be put into place at the track this summer. Night racing is coming to Churchill on two Fridays (June 19 and 26) as well as a Thursday (July 2) during this spring meet. If that move is a sensation, it’s a short jump to the next debate.

“More people have commented on that to me in a positive way than anything we’ve done since I’ve been here,” Asher said.

I’m not surprised. Lights, camera, action is the American way. Once lights are plugged in, the temptation is to use them more, not less. Wrigley Field and Notre Dame once were allergic to lights. Check what times the Super Bowl, World Series and Final Four sign off these days.

Television loves lights. Later starting times bring better ratings. Better ratings bring larger rights fees. Feel free to connect the halogen dots.

“Anything’s possible,” said Tom Hammond, the Lexington-based anchor of NBC’s Derby TV announcing team. “A prime-time Kentucky Derby would obviously be a big attraction.”

As a programming draw, the Derby has been remarkably consistent over the last decade even as the U.S. audience has been splintered by more channels and entertainment options. The Derby’s TV share — percentage of TVs tuned in — has registered at 18 in six of the past seven years. That’s solid.

But network TV has reassessed its Derby coverage. ESPN sliced six hours from 2008 to ’09 in its Derby/Oaks package, reducing it to five hours, all from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday.

The first show to disappear was yesterday’s post-position draw. Once Big Brown scored from the 20 hole last year, it became laughable to sell the draw as serious strategic drama. Goodbye ESPN at 5:30 p.m. Hello HRTV at high noon.

ESPN also whacked a one-hour Thursday Derby preview, three hours of Friday coverage and one hour on Saturday.

Like most events, the Derby could always use more good stories and promotional juice. Keep an eye on those portable lights.