Churchill Downs has conducted the Kentucky Derby for 138 consecutive years and has done a lot of things well during that amazing stretch. The track has done its job well enough to have never missed a year since the first Derby was run at what was then known as the Louisville Jockey Club in 1875, and it has never missed a year since that first running.
When an event rolls along for nearly a century and a half, it’s not often that one can truly say that you’re witnessing anything that is truly new. But that happened at Churchill Downs in 2009 when the track conducted racing under lights for the first time and it’s going to happen again during next year’s Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks when Churchill Downs unveils a new venue that resembles no other structure in the history of the National Historic Landmark and great American sports shrine.
For Kentucky Derby and Oaks 139, Churchill Downs will add to its list of venues a new facility called The Mansion. It will quite literally be unlike any attraction offered by the track in its long history.
Imagine an elegant home complete with an opulent dining room, library sitting room, bar, a private wine cellar and a veranda upon which every conversation has the historic Twin Spires, the heart and soul of the home of the Kentucky Derby, as its backdrop. Now imagine that lush home parked six floors into the sky with a front door looking down on the finish line as 20 horses thunder past the finish line for Kentucky Derby 139.
The day is made more elegant with personalized service that includes a concierge for the 320 or so people who have gathered on the premises to enjoy a Kentucky Derby and Oaks experience like no other.
Millionaires Row has its share of wonderful moments, but there has never been a Kentucky Derby and Oaks party quite like the elegant soiree that will be underway in The Mansion at Churchill Downs in 2013.
The track offered details on The Mansion during a Tuesday press conference in which it also unveiled three other renovation projects that will be underway over the next few months.
But the big one is The Mansion. The track has not revealed the cost of one of the seats in the venue for the Derby and Oaks, and, quite frankly, it could be one of those deals covered by the adage, “If you have to ask, then you can’t afford it.”
The four-project package also includes a new Media Center for reporters, photographers and videographers who cover the Derby, Oaks and other special events; an expanded Gold Room for its best customers at the betting windows; and the razing of the Paddock Pavilion to make way for 30,000 square feet of new and open space between the Paddock and the track’s Gate 1 entrance.
Churchill Downs is sure to have its critics who will contend that The Mansion is yet another example of track greed. They will claim that, by catering to a high-rolling, big dollar patron in The Mansion, Churchill Downs continues to forget its smaller players.
They can say it, but it will be difficult for them to back that up.
Winn Would Have Approved
I can’t speak for Col. Matt Winn, the legendary impresario of the Derby and Churchill Downs who is credited for lifting the event and the track to their status as worldwide sports icons and would never attempt to. But from what I have read and studied of Winn, I believe the man who became known across the nation as “Mr. Derby” during his 1902-1949 run the historic track would have appreciated and applauded the concept of his track’s glamorous new guest venue.
When Winn came aboard at the turn of the 20th century, Churchill Downs was in a perilous financial position and he set out immediately to restore modest national prominence the Derby and its home track had briefly enjoyed in its early years. In doing so, he sought memberships by well-heeled Louisvillians in a new Clubhouse during the early months of his tenure as Churchill Downs’ general manager. Winn traveled to New York and other circles to convince successful horse and business owners to travel to Louisville and bring their horses to compete in his race and enjoy the ever-growing celebration that surrounded it. The social aspect of the Derby was always a large part of Winn’s vision.
The formula concocted by Winn and his management team is potent stuff and continues to work beautifully today. The mix of fashion, celebrity, fun and a world-class sports event has, in the last two renewals of the Kentucky Derby, resulted in back-to-back attendance records. And the Kentucky Oaks attracted record attendance in 2010 and has a pair of top five crowds over the past two years.
The total value of the four projects, with The Mansion making up much of the package, is $9 million. That expenditure will raise Churchill Downs’ total investment in its facility and guest service programs over the past decade to more than $150 million. The largest chunk of that is the $122.4 million renovation of its Clubhouse and Grandstand completed in 2005.
There are few fans who have attended the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, any day or night at the races, or any business and social event at the track since the renovation was completed that have not benefitted from that spending.
While the new round of projects is indeed headed by a venue that will cater to a very limited clientele of spectacular means, another project will open a large area of the Grandstand that will now be populated on Oaks and Derby Day to the track’s general admission patrons. The clearing of the Paddock Pavilion also creates new possibilities for “Downs After Dark” night racing and other special events throughout the year at Churchill Downs.
In the creation of The Mansion, Churchill Downs is following a path that I sincerely believe would draw a smile from Col. Winn, along with an approving nod from the master marketer. The track is creating something new not only for the Derby and Oaks and Thoroughbred racing, but a facility that appears to be unique in the massive sports entertainment industry. It’s the kind of thinking and exceptional reach that worked for Winn in the track’s earliest days.
In an era in which Churchill Downs and Kentucky’s signature horse industry face enduring and growing threats from competing states with racing industries fueled by revenues generated by additional gaming, the home of the Kentucky Derby is using tools it has at hand in an effort to grow its strongest products, the Derby and Oaks, with hopes that their momentum will carry over to the rest of the track’s activities through the year. In doing so, a truly new Kentucky Derby experience is being created.
While I won’t be among those who enjoy the Mansion, I cannot wait to hear from those who do. After 138 years, the track that is home to the Kentucky Derby still strives to grow and create new experiences despite a difficult landscape in its primary industry.
That’s the kind of challenge Matt Winn thrived on during his years beneath the Twin Spires. I would have loved to see his face on a stroll through The Mansion at Churchill Downs.