The Derby Trial is decadent and depraved

All right, maybe it doesn’t rise to THAT level. Hunter Thompson is dead, and I’m not feeling so good myself.

But I never thought I’d see the day (and certainly not the night) when it was as difficult to navigate from press pox to paddock for the Derby Trial as it is for the Kentucky Derby.

Such is the power and draw of night racing at Churchill Downs. It’s a different crowd, certainly a younger crowd, a more diverse crowd, that packs every grandstand club and balcony when the lights go on.

But a crowd it is. (Official attendance, 38,142 — the largest ever at Churchill Downs outside of Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks or Breeders’ Cup days.) At 10 p.m., they were still filing through the gates at Churchill Downs, even younger faces that wouldn’t know the difference between a filly and a furlong, but that know a party when they see one.

Forget the Derby tradition of sneaking booze into the infield. Sneaking booze into this setting would be like sneaking it into Charlie Sheen’s place. There’s really not much point. Many of the patrons in the paddock and turf clubs and on the balconies tonight are the folks you might find in the infield or staking out less-than-forward positions on Derby day. But tonight, they’re gypsies in the palace. They have the house to themselves — and the key to the liquor cabinet.

The kids coming in at 10 o’clock seemed unconcerned that they’d just missed the feature race, The Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial. The race is named after a Margaux Farm stallion, The Cliff’s Edge, that is named for longtime Equibase and Daily Racing Form chart caller Cliff Guilliams, who also was the last staff handicapper for The Courier-Journal, and my great friend. He passed away in April of 2008.

Cliff was gruff and rough as gravel. He was so old-school that he thought even the old school was too new. That a race bearing, in some form, his name would take part amid this non-racing revelry would have sent him on a rant of epic proportions.

He hated the marketing side of the game, the public-relations posturing, and more than anything he hated the corporate mentality that crept into the sport.  I’m not saying anything that anybody at the track doesn’t already know, or that Cliff probably didn’t tell them himself. Repeatedly.

But I am chuckling, I’ll admit, at the irony of Cliff’s name being on the centerpiece race on a night when racing is hardly the centerpiece. He’d love the honor of the Derby Trial bearing his name. He’d be honored beyond belief. But if Cliff is looking down at this night, he’s using some language that they probably don’t hear much Up There.

Be that as it may, night racing, particularly as it has been executed by Churchill Downs, has been a stroke of corporate marketing genius and Churchill’s decision to make Opening Day an Opening Night must be termed a success.

One key to Churchill’s night success has been in its staging. Every area of the track is turned into a different kind of night spot.

They hung a series of chandeliers over the Aristides statue. Pat Day’s statue stood off to the side, hands upraised to the heavens, as if to say, “Are you getting all this?”

Maybe He was. In the tenth race, Needadrink finished second, just ahead of Sober Living. The winner? Need an Angel. I’m not making this up.

But night racing at Churchill has also succeeded because of its timing. Churchill doesn’t open the track every night of the week, but keeps the night dates fairly few in number, and therefore still special to the public, which seems to have no problem with plunking down $10 at the turnstiles.

We’ll see how many of them have a problem with the track being closed on Sunday of its opening weekend — even to simulcasting.

But if Louisville is a town that will embrace any reason for a party, Churchill Downs has tapped into something here, and the attraction apparently has not waned, and in fact is growing.

For a facility built on a sport that is fading in many ways, it’s an enlightening development.

If you haven’t read it, please click here now to read Hunter Thompson’s famous piece about the Kentucky Derby, which the headline for this entry was spoofing. It is regularly voted among the top pieces of sports writing of the 20th century.

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