Tours, museum recreate Derby Day excitement

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Horsing around at the infield party.

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Although you might not be able to attend the Kentucky Derby this year, you can experience Churchill Downs excitement year-round. Within its gates there’s a fascinating museum that’s certain to awe racing enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike. 

One of the country’s most famous racetracks, known for its emblematic tall, white spires, Churchill Downs has been the center of Kentucky horseracing since 1875. You can lose a full day taking in the Derby’s storied history.

Seats cost $3,000 apiece on Derby Day (May 3 this year), but the museum is far more affordable. And the museum crowds are far lighter than on Derby Day, when thousands pack the stands to experience “the greatest two minutes in sports.” 

In early spring, the excitement of Derby Day was already beginning to show at the Downs, located just five miles outside of downtown Louisville, Kentucky. The air was filled with hammering and the buzzing of chain saws while workers installed temporary seating that’s used only for the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks, a race for three-year-old thoroughbred fillies held the day prior to Derby Day. While fillies are eligible to run in the Kentucky Derby (and a few have tried), the Kentucky Oaks is strictly limited to the female horses.

This year’s pace of construction was especially brisk as a new section of 1,400 permanent seats was installed at one end of the track (comparable to a football stadium’s end zone). It’s estimated that the $7-million project will more than pay for itself in just a few years.

That’s because many Derby ticket holders are prepared to pay far more than the $3,000 going rate per seat. There’s an enormous, glassed-in area called Millionaire’s Row, located almost directly across from the finish line. Above it is an area for the most rarified of visitors, including wealthy political leaders (as if there were any other kind these days), athletes, and entertainment celebrities and moguls.

A new behind-the-scenes tour takes visitors (limited to 15 per tour) inside Millionaire’s Row and the exclusive floor above, where you can catch a glimpse of the swank but tasteful reception area where the Queen of England sits her royal arse when she visits. 

Wisconsinites might get a peek of one of their hometown celebrities while visiting Churchill Downs. This writer spotted an amiable Paul Hornung (retired Hall of Fame running back for the Green Bay Packers) at Churchill Downs. He said that he lives in Louisville now and has traded footballs for race horses.

This tour is one of several that are offered daily by the Churchill Downs Museum (except for the day of the Oaks and the Derby). The museum’s entrance is easily visible from the front gate — its name is emblazoned on a wall in shiny gold letters. More than 210,000 visitors trot through the museum each year. The tours are limited and should be booked in advance.

One of the don’t-miss tours is included with regular museum admission ($14 for adults, $6–$11 for children). It takes viewers down the “chute” where all the Derby horses walk from a showing area outside the track onto the track itself. The area is paved with “bricks” made of recycled rubber, to keep the horses from injuring their feet.

The track seems enormous at ground level. Visitors can get their photos taken at trackside.

Most folks are surprised to learn that Churchill Downs has more than 100 horses stabled there year-round. The regular walking tour includes a visit to see the resident thoroughbred, who has a pony pal for company.

To see a racing thoroughbred (and possibly, a Kentucky Derby winner), there’s the Barn and Backside Tour. This one-hour tour, conducted on an air-conditioned bus, takes guests back to the stables. One might see horses getting a bath or being fitted for new “shoes.” Many of these gleaming, gorgeous horses cost millions of dollars, so don’t expect to get out of the bus to pet one. However, the experienced guides know a great deal about the track’s history and even why racing horses wear certain pieces of equipment (such as nose pads and eye guards). That will give visitors a few fun facts to share at a Derby Day party.

Speaking of parties (see story below), it’s not just women who wear eye-popping Derby hats. Men typically wear hats, too. Traditional hats worn by both sexes are available at the terrific gift store. The staff won’t mind if you model a Derby hat for a quick photo (the women’s hats cost about $100–$130).  The men’s hats, typically straw fedoras or gambler’s hats in tones of cream and white, cost a bit less.

Another aspect of the Barn and Backside Tour is a chance to see the veritable village contained within the racing grounds. In addition to rows and rows of elaborately adorned stables, there’s a 24/7 restaurant for stable workers, trainers, etc., and a church that holds services on Mondays (since races often are held on Sundays). There are dormitories and, of course, a fitness center.

The newest offering, Inside the Gates Tour, contains many of the features mentioned above. This 75-minute tour includes a stop at some original murals painted on the walls of a main area within the building. One mural is of famous trainers, and the other one is of famous jockeys (if you can only recognize jockey Willie Shoemaker, don’t feel bad. He’s the one most visitors remember).

Our guide told some colorful stories about those characters (and many were real characters), as you admire the workmanship of the murals.

Don’t be surprised to see automated betting machines basically everywhere within Churchill Downs. It’s still possible to place a $2 bet. In some of the restricted areas (which you won’t see unless you’re the guest of an sheik who owns horses there), are beautiful, carved dark-wood betting cages. Visitors can place “live” bets, as they did in the “old” days before technology took over.

If you are interested in the two tours mentioned above plus regular admission, you can get a package that shaves a few dollars off the price. And you’ll still have time to explore the museum itself, which offers state-of-the-art interactive exhibits. Unfortunately, flooding in 2009 required a complete re-do of the museum’s main floor. Millions of dollars were spent to recreate what you’ll see there today.

Inside the museum, visitors can experience all the aspects of racing. One of the interactive games allows you to “race” your friends atop a life-size thoroughbred. You have to maintain a jockey’s stance (not easy) and position your horse on the track with your thumbs. Another exhibit allows you to “call” a race, like the real announcers do. There’s a wonderful, 360-degree movie that puts you right in the middle of racing action.

To enter the museum, you pass through a real starting gate identical to the one used at the Derby. You’ll gain a new appreciation for the tight space where jockeys prepare before they hear a buzzer and the call, “They’re off!"

The Derby’s annual infield party has Mardi Gras flair

If you’ll be among the millions of TV viewers who are watching (or who watched) the Kentucky Derby on May 3, there’s an aspect of the Derby action you’ll probably never see: the freewheeling sideshow within the racetrack itself. Much like New Orleans during Mardi Gras, the Churchill Downs’ infield becomes a playground for grown-ups on Derby Day.  About 80,000 revelers are packed within its boundaries, and many are ready for “the best party of the year,” according to a veteran infield-goer from Louisville.

It is important to note that very few among the infield crowd will see a live horse. And they could care less, as a well-heeled Kentuckian told me. They are far more interested in the beer stands, which also sell the traditional mint juleps (laced with Kentucky bourbon, of course). Horse racing action, if one is interested, can be viewed from an enormous Jumbotron video screen across the track from the more respectable areas of Churchill Downs. 

While national TV cameras focus on the “proper” side of Derby action — showing images of celebrities and elegantly dressed women sporting their elaborate Derby hats — the infield is a bit more, shall we say, informal? The infield visitors are college kids, and they dress accordingly. The attire skews more toward the casual, with T-shirts and cut-off shorts the preferred outfit of the day. High heels are out, while cowboy boots and flip-flop sandals are definitely in. There’s a practical reason for this: The heavy traffic tends to make the infield muddy, especially if there’s been heavy rain (as in 2013).

However, unique costumes also are encouraged. Last year, one gentleman showed up in a three-piece-suit, topped by a horse mask that covered his entire head. There’s occasionally someone dressed as Batman or Gumby.

Many infield-goers wear imaginatively designed hats that tend to be more tacky than stylish. For instance, one woman at last year’s race decided to wear a straw cowboy hat decorated with two plastic horses “doin’ what comes naturally.” Another woman sported a Wisconsin cheese-head decorated with plastic daisies. 

The infield antics are so well known within Louisville that the infield experience is mentioned (briefly) in official marketing materials. Although the materials note that the infield is where people “indulge in all things fun, freewheeling and a little frisky,” it goes far short of spelling out what really happens here — such as women stripping off their shirts and occasional sex-in-the-grass romance.

A recent crackdown on items allowed into the infield — including coolers, grills and tents —  was partly designed to put a damper on full-scale partying. However, the imaginative infield crowd was not to be deterred. In 2013, when a light rain continued all day, some infield-goers were irked by the fact that umbrellas weren’t allowed inside the gates. So, they created an interesting diversion. They placed tarps on the ground, tossed bags of ice on top, and created an adult-sized variation of the Slip-n’-Slide. Even the “horse head guy” gave it a try. And so did some women stripped down to their bras (or at least that’s how far they went for local videographers).

But don’t expect such scenes to be played out on national television. Instead, you’ll have to send your imagination racing.

For more information . . . 

on the Kentucky Derby Museum, located at 704 Central Avenue, Louisville, KY 40208,call (502) 637-1111 ext. 220 (for tour reservations), or visit derbymuseum.org. For the gift shop, visit derbymuseumstore.com.

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