Derby Leaver

By John McEvoy

By It came upon a cold December morning, this message of icy reality from one of the nation’s most famous sporting venues: Buzz off, pal. Not in so many words, mind you, but clearly expressed in numbers was the fact that I’ve spent my last Kentucky Derby day at Churchill Downs. My grandstand seats for the 2006 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) cost $103 apiece last year.  But I would now have to cough up $l,168 in order to return to Section 221 the afternoon of May 5. Whoops!

A cool grand would give me “the right to purchase…specific Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby tickets for a term of five years.” The seats themselves cost extra. They’re priced at $168 apiece for 2007.

That’s out of my financial league and out of the leagues of the friends and family members who have for the past quarter century rooted their favorites home along with me in the grandstand mezzanine, between the eighth pole and sixteenth pole.

This monetary bombshell reflects Churchill management’s decision to introduce Personal Seat License fees to a far from eager clientele. It came in the form of a color brochure outlining the details of this change in marketing strategy, describing it as “the opportunity to secure your part in the tradition, pageantry, and spectacle that makes the Oaks and Derby weekend at Churchill Downs a one-of-a-kind experience.”

The $1,000 fee applies to just my old section. Clubhouse boxes are being offered at $50,000 per PSL ($466 per seat); Skye Terrace tables of eight for $60,000 ($793 per seat).

I saw my first Derby in 1962. It was won by Decidedly, much to the dismay of my wife, Judy, and I, who had driven to Louisville from Columbia, Mo., where I was teaching college English, so that we could root for Ridan, our favorite horse at the time. Ridan ran third. We were in the infield, and I sprinted from the backstretch fence to the homestretch railing to get glimpses of the action. In those days it was possible to cover ground like that without tripping over a passed-out frat boy or being distracted by bosom-baring female patrons, staples of infield revelry in recent years.

I began buying grandstand seats at the Derby in 1979, when I became editor of the Midwest edition of Daily Racing Form and assumed the right to purchase them from my predecessor. The tickets I didn’t use I sold, at cost, to colleagues or relatives, or gave as Christmas gifts to fellow racing fanatics who were delighted to have access to one of the most sought after tickets in sports.

Ticket prices escalated rather modestly until the late ’90s. Then my seats went to $65 each in 1998, jumped to $80 three years later, $95 in 2004, and $103 in 2006. This escalation was not accompanied by any improvement in comfort or convenience for denizens of Section 221. These are not “stadium seats,” with arm and back rests, cushions, cup holders. They are backless benches. Yet already, seats in this section are being offered by Internet ticket brokers for up to $635 for 2007.

The trend to an annual increase was one thing. And the nearly 60% rise in prices over the last decade? That was a blow that I could absorb, however unhappily. But this $1,000 haymaker out of left field was the knockout punch for me.
It’s not just us members of the Geezer Corps, seniors on fixed incomes, that this hits hard. A regular user of one of my tickets has been a young man, I’ll call him Jim J., who has a young family. He formerly was a Chicago Bears season ticket holder. When the Bears adopted their version of PSL a few years ago, he couldn’t afford to retain them. (Interestingly, the Bears Permanent Seat License is a one-time payment, not as with the Derby, a “one-time contribution…for a period of five years.” I thought “contributions” went to charities, not multi-million-dollar corporations.)

As Jim J. remarked the other day, “People like me are being priced out of major sporting events. But with TVG and the other Derby television coverage, and my computer betting account, I’ll survive. On the other hand, there’s nothing like being at the Derby, is there?”

Too bad it’s over for us.

John McEvoy's second horse racing novel, Riders Down, was published in 2006.