Churchill Downs

March 12, 2011

By: Courtney Zimmerman

On a beautiful Saturday morning, Melissa, Jill, Amanda, Annalisa and I traveled to Louisville, Kentucky to take a special behind-the-scenes tour of Churchill Downs. It was exhilarating! Everyone else had varying personal experiences with Churchill Downs but I was the only first timer. We arrived early so we were able to have a look around the Kentucky Derby Museum before our tour began. I was in heaven: being able to personally visit the site of the greatest day of the entire year and immerse myself in all of its grand history was incredible. It is evident that the exhibit is new because it caters to the needs of modern museum-goers and provides interesting interactive displays. We “big kids” had a blast riding the mechanical horses through a simulated race (I kept placing third!) and betting on a race. Another exhibit involved a touch-screen computer that allowed you to choose which horses you wanted to win, place and show and then printed a ticket with your selections, including winning odds for each horse. Then we watched our race (cheering loudly, of course) and got to scan our tickets at the end to see how much we would have won. I would have received $5.80! Too bad the museum doesn’t let you collect on fake races. Immersing ourselves in the “glory days” of racehorses gave us some real-life perspective of the lives of the horses that we are currently working with before their arrival at the Secretariat Center.

Amanda, AnnaLisa, Jill and Courtney posing with Super Saver, winner of the 2010 Kentucky Derby

By this time, we were ready to meet up with our host, Ronnie Dreistadt. He explained a brief history of the Kentucky Derby and of Churchill Downs: The first Kentucky Derby winner was Aristides in 1875 and the race has been run every year since, making it the longest consecutively-running horse race in America. There were a few years that the Derby came close to being cancelled due to extreme weather or world conflicts (such as WWII), but alas, the Kentucky Derby’s name lives on.

Entrance to Churchill Downs with commemorative statue of Barbaro, winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby

After these introductions, Ronnie brought us to the Jockey Room. Everything was very antiquated (the exercise room didn’t even have any windows!) and we were informed that it hadn’t been renovated since the 1940s. We were able to see the official scale that the jockeys weigh in on before each race and then got to see the men’s jockey locker room (we’re all girls, but don’t worry, it was empty). We even got to see the “lucky locker” that Calvin Borel uses. He has won 3 out of the past four Kentucky Derbys so it’s no wonder he doesn’t want to give it up! We were then able to see the game room where they all relax before the big race – apparently NBC runs the whole show and tells everyone when it is time to take pictures as well as when to head downstairs for the race.

After our visit to the Jockey Room, we continued our tour outside in the paddock area where the horses are saddled and wait until the post parade. We then got to go upstairs to the Millionaire’s Suites (probably for the first and last time!). The view was phenomenal! Not only are these suites situated right on the finish line, but they also have a fully-catered buffet. However, these seats are not just for your average millionaire. Sure, a seat for the Derby only costs $918, but here’s the catch: you can’t buy just ONE seat, but the entire table for a set of 8 seats! But before you’re even allowed to do that, you have to buy a seating “license” – with a price tag of a mere $180,000! No wonder horseracing is coined “The Sport of Kings!”

View of Churchill Downs near the Millionaire's Suites

We finished up our tour in the museum and watched a movie on a 360 degree screen. The movie went through a day at the Derby, from 4am when the trainers and jockeys arrive to work the horses, until after the winners leave the circle and Churchill Downs is empty again. Watching a film race around your head was an extraordinary experience (even if it did strain my neck) and the footage brought about emotions of awe and excitement. I believe horseracing is one of the few sports that can cause such thrilling sensations and intense feelings of power!

Attending the Kentucky Derby has always been a childhood dream of mine – taking a tour of Churchill Downs simply confirmed it. This industry needs another Triple Crown win to bring it back into the spotlight… Who knows, maybe the first year I am able to attend will be THE year!