Kentucky

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Will Churchill Downs Improvements Mean a Bigger Economic Finish?

1 May, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Hats. Horses. Juleps.  Some things are iconic at the Kentucky Derby. But some things have also changed – mainly home improvements, as it were, designed to bump up the experience at Churchill Downs.

According to an article in the Courier Journal, since 2011, $170 million has been poured into improving the racetrack and grounds. Year over year, it the enhancements have gradual – but significant. For example, in 2017, the second-level clubhouse area underwent a $16 million transformation that included extensive cosmetic upgrades, improved bar areas, twice as many restrooms (spectators are giving thanks) and more concessions stands. Back in 2015, the open-air Winner's Circle Suites became the new area for Kentucky Derby owners, with a covered lounge and direct views of the home stretch and finish line. And in 2014, the "world's largest 4K ultra-high definition video board" was added in the center of the track. Other changes included about 2,400 new seats on the second and third floors of the Grandstand Terrace.

So despite its adherence to tradition, Churchill Downs is hardly standing still.

This year, the changes are a mix of subtlety and dramatic. While trees, bushes and flowers are being planted on the grounds, the venue is also ready to show off a new Rooftop Lounge and a new Infield Gate. (Gate 3 was renamed the "Infield Gate" and Gate 10 was renamed "Clubhouse Gate" in 2018. The latest improvements "will make getting in and out of the track smoother for our infield guests on Oaks and Derby days).

Also new this year is the enormous 20,000-square-foot Rooftop Lounge and garden on top of the Starting Gate Suites. The newest suites include 32 luxury suites and are part of $69 million worth of capital projects Churchill has completed in 2019.

The Courier Journal first reported about The Starting Gate Suites, which feature 77,250 square feet of new space on the north end of the track with three floors of individual suites with dining and event space, in 2017. It is adjacent to the Jockey Club Suites, which opened in 2003.

The new suites include "indoor lounge seating with a bar and private tiered balcony overlooking the track for 1,140 ticketed guests," the Courier Journal previously reported. The project also includes 110 new third-floor grandstand seats and 576 additional seats at the indoor dining facility. Other listed improvements can be found here.

The race, nicknamed “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” is a spring tradition, with watch parties taking place nationwide. (Here is the leaderboard; it changes daily.)

One thing that won’t change: the Derby’s ability to bring in crowds and make a buck. Last year, $225.7 million was wagered, according to our friends at Wallethub. (The $3M prize purse seems almost measly by comparison.) And with an estimated 150,000 in attendance, it’s pretty certain that 2019 may eclipse last year’s figure of 120,000 mint juleps, 522,000 cans of beer and 142,000 hot dogs sold.

A few other fun facts:

340: The percentage increase in hotel room rates on Derby weekend

90: Percentage of women who wear hats at the Derby

$500 to $1,000: The average cost of a high-end Derby hat (and by the way, it could be worse; the world’s most expensive hat clocked in at $3 million – the same as the total purse for the Derby)

$2,500: Cost of the most expensive mint julep (an astounding 20 were made)

350: Pounds of Tide are required to wash competitors’ jerseys on race day (the Derby isn’t the only race that runs, after all)

50: Pounds of manure each horse produces (regardless of whether it wins or loses).

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