136th Kentucky Derby Could Be 1st Under Lights

In this photo taken on, Sunday, April 25, 2010, horses exercise before dawn under newly installed lights at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Permanent lights now rim the famed track, part of a plan to run races at night during the spring and fall meets. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke AP Photo/Ed Reinke

The Kentucky Derby could be run under the lights for the first time on Saturday.

Heavy rain is expected and if visibility is poor, Churchill Downs will turn on its newly installed lights for the first time on Derby Day.

"It could be blinkers off and lights on," said Bob Baffert, trainer of the 3-1 favorite Lookin At Lucky and 12-1 shot Conveyance.

Photos: 2010 Kentucky Derby
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Banks of lights now encircle the venerable track. They were installed to accommodate night racing during the summer, and are sometimes used for early morning training. They can be employed at any time - even for the Derby.

"It is an option that we do have," track spokesman Darren Rogers said Friday.

There are no restrictions in the race conditions barring the use of artificial light. The first 135 runnings of the classic for 3-year-olds were conducted in daylight. Churchill Downs hopes to continue that tradition when the horses go to the post at 6:24 p.m. EDT.

That might not be realistic. The National Weather Service predicts showers and thunderstorms Saturday with periods of heavy rain totaling 1 to 2 inches.

Finding an Audience

When NBC and Churchill Downs conducted market research a few years ago to increase TV interest in the Kentucky Derby, the results were startling.

Turns out, the sport of kings does well with women, too.

The Derby is one of three sporting events that draws more women than men, said NBC Universal senior vice president of marketing Mike McCarley. The Winter and Summer Olympics are the other two.

The research was a game-changer and allowed NBC, which will televise Saturday's Run for the Roses for the 10th straight year, to think outside the box.

Rather than confine promotions for the Derby to weekend afternoons during other sporting events, NBC spreads the love across the other networks it owns.

The Kentucky Oaks, the filly version of the Kentucky Derby, is broadcast on Bravo, which skews heavily toward female viewers. There are Derby segments on "The Today Show" in the run-up to the race focusing on everything from fashion to how to create the perfect mint julep.

"Women are watching the Derby more for the spectacle than the sporting event," McCarley said. "There's a balance you have to strike for the different people that you're watching."

The formula appears to be working. Viewership is up 27 percent since 2001. The 9.8 rating for Mine That Bird's upset last year was the highest-rated Derby since 1992.

To build on that success, Churchill Downs helped produce a series of one-hour telecasts on Saturdays this spring called "Road to the Derby," featuring the major prep races. They hope the investment pays off.

"We're lucky, men and women love horse racing and love the Derby," track president Kevin Flanery said.

There's a chance viewers won't have to hop from network to network next year to follow the Triple Crown. NBC broadcasts the Derby and the Preakness, while ESPN holds the rights to the Belmont. The TV contracts expire this year. McCarley said having the entire Triple Crown on one network would help sustain interest in the series even in years when there isn't a Triple Crown candidate.

"I think that's a real growth opportunity for the sport," he said.

Pink Out

No one got into the spirit of Friday's "Pink Out" event more than Col. Sanders of KFC fame.

In order to help raise awareness and funds for breast cancer research, Churchill Downs officials were promoting a "Susan G. Komen Passionately Pink for the Cure" day at the track in conjunction with the running of the Kentucky Oaks, the premier race for fillies. Fans were asked to wear something pink, or one of the organization's trademark pink ribbons.

Bob Thompson, who portrays Col. Sanders and serves as a spokesman for the restaurant chain, wore a double-breasted pink linen suit and greeted fans on the backstretch Friday. It was his fifth trip to the Derby. Asked which horse he was picking for Saturday's Kentucky Derby, he laughed.

"Nobody's told me, so I won't know until it's over who I should have bet."

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