New Dawn at the Downs
Photo:
Dan Liebman
Executive Editor
On May 7 in Louisville, Ky., when the most famous race in the land is run at the most famous track in the land, the race will look the same as it did a year ago. The Kentucky Derby (gr. I) is still for 3-year-olds, still at a mile and a quarter, still the first Saturday in May, and the winner still gets a garland of roses.

The race will look the same, but the facility sure won't.

After an extensive and lengthy renovation process sandwiched around race meets, little remains the same at Churchill Downs.

As Leslie Deckard points out (see page 2486), it won't take long to realize this is not your father's Churchill Downs. I know; my first visit there was with my father.

It was the spring of 1966. At the tender age of 7, my handicapping theory was this: six is my favorite number, so bet the six horse in the sixth race.

Of course the horse won.

Since that time, I have seriously handicapped and viewed many races at Churchill Downs. Not a meet has been missed the past 40 years. It is a special place. To those who love the Thoroughbred, it is a sacred place.

That lofty pedestal put the management of Churchill Downs in a tough situation when they took on the job of modernizing a historic structure without destroying its charm. Replacing the bricks on the ground floor of the clubhouse and slapping a new coat of paint on the Twin Spires wasn't what they had in mind. They didn't remodel the track; they reinvented it.

And for what?

More than $120 million was spent for two days a year, when the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby are run. In the years Churchill hosts the Breeders' Cup, make it three days a year. On any other day, there aren't enough fans to matter, a situation certainly not unique to Churchill Downs.

When the television cameras on Derby day show Churchill Downs, and when patrons visit during the 2005 spring/summer meeting, they will be amazed by what they see and by what they don't see.

The Twin Spires are still there, but the signature that is Churchill is not nearly as noticeable. The spires were always the first things you noticed about Churchill.

Well, not anymore.

There will never again be a famous photo of horses racing "under" the Twin Spires. The Spires don't tower over the Churchill surface anymore.

Like the Spires, little else looks the same in the new facility. There was a certain amount of quaintness to the old, creaky, wooden third-floor box section, but concrete has now replaced the aged, green wood. I'll miss the old boxes, where I would sit and wonder who was in that seat the day Citation won. The happiest patrons will be those who sit in the top rows. This used to be a dark and dingy place to watch the races, but it is now bright and airy thanks to a raised roof, smoothed look, and softer paint color.

Each box in the prime sections near the finish line--at least those in the rows above the walkway--have two small, flat-screens monitors, one for ordering food and beverages, the other for making wagers and checking odds.

For those lucky enough to be invited to the new Turf Club, it is hard to imagine spending a day at the races in a more luxurious setting. The other dining rooms are spacious and pleasant, though in my mind the interior decorator had a weird sense of style and fashion.

In the new Churchill, there is considerably less space for the Kentucky Oaks and Derby day crowds to congregate near the paddock because the building now extends into part of the area. That is unfortunate.

Where the building extends is the new main entrance to the track, which is striking. It features gothic-style columns, an impressive glass sculpture hanging overhead, and an escalator ride ending with a huge mural. It is certainly no mistake that as you drive up and make your way inside, you feel as if you are entering a casino, not a racetrack.

The day almost certainly will come when Churchill becomes a racino, and management clearly had the future of gaming in mind when it drew up the blueprints.

This isn't your daddy's Churchill Downs. That's OK; they don't make horses like Citation anymore either.

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