Monday, April 26, 2004

VIP guests moved to infield


High-priced, high-up seats not available this year

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LOUISVILLE - The infield at Churchill Downs has gone high class for Kentucky Derby 130.

A $121 million renovation has temporarily displaced Millionaires' Row to tents in the infield.

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Well-heeled Derby fans who prided themselves for years with seats in skyboxes high above the track will now be with the bare-chested, beer-guzzling college crowd they used to literally look down upon.

Although the construction project will displace only 3,500 of the 150,000 race fans expected, the most inconvenienced include the Bluegrass State's wealthiest. One such person is Northern Kentucky millionaire R.C. Durr, a baron in the road-building industry.

"I'll sit wherever they put me," the 84-year-old Richwood resident said. "Down there you are just lucky to get a seat. It is tougher than hell to get a ticket nowadays."

The renovation at Churchill Downs will be finished in April 2005. It will bring more luxury suites, year-round-use meeting rooms, more seating and many other amenities.

The 77,000-square-foot complex of tents, the size of a large Kroger store, is sprawled over four acres on a brick-covered area in the middle of the infield. It will be a carpeted and wood-lined tent with numerous bars, a porch with rocking chairs and televisions to watch the race. But the only way tent-goers will see a real horse will be to stand on a temporary observation stand built in front of the tent.

An 8-foot-high fence covered in green mesh will separate the tent area from the rest of the infield, and a tunnel under the track will be reserved for racegoers with tickets for the tent.

Concerned about a backlash from people relegated to a tent, track officials hired veteran network racing commentator Tom Hammond to narrate a multimedia presentation sent on compact discs to ticketholders like Durr.

Hammond describes the exclusivity of the tents, called The Village at Churchill Downs. Artists' renderings of beautiful people sipping mint juleps in a tent flash on the scene as Hammond outlines the amenities available.

Still, the tent is drawing some criticism.

With all the new structures in the infield, viewing the Derby will not be as easy as in the past, especially from the lower levels. Legendary trainer Bob Baffert, quoted in the April 19 issue of Blood-Horse magazine, called this year's Derby the fastest one minute in sports because that's about as much as the fans in the grandstand will see of the race.

Churchill Downs spokesman John Asher said the construction is necessary for the longtime survival of the track. The number of seats available at the track on its biggest day of racing will be a little more than 54,000, or about 300 fewer seats than last year. Asher said the tent would not disrupt the general admission crowd because it's placed in the center of the infield. The general admission crowd generally gathers near the first and fourth turns of the track, leaving the center of the infield empty.

"While we have 130 years of history, we compare very poorly to customer comforts," he said. "The new facilities (riverboat casinos) in the region raised the bar. If we wanted to have any shot at bringing in more fans, we had to do something bold."

Churchill Downs continues to pull in record crowds for the Derby, but its grandstand is largely empty on most racing dates outside of Derby week.

Durr said he is glad to see money being poured back into the track. The construction is to be completed for next year's Derby, making an infield tent unnecessary.

"They have to do what they have to do to stay in business," said Durr, who served on the former Kentucky Racing Commission and still owns thoroughbreds. "They are spending a lot of money down there. I'm glad. It tells me they have faith in their operation."

Asher said management hopes the renovated Downs will bring in additional fans just as new ballparks have boosted attendance to major league games. Unlike many ballparks, Churchill Downs received no tax money to renovate. It did, however, use revenue from newly constructed luxury boxes to help pay for the renovation.

The first half of the renovation is complete. It includes 64 luxury boxes, called Jockey Club Suites, built on top of the old grandstands. The suites are similar to ones found at Great American Ball Park. They are furnished with a wet bar, couches and chairs and private betting machines. There are also spacious meeting rooms, some offering spectacular views of the Twin Spires, that turn a once seasonal track to a year-round rental hall capable of hosting conferences and gala dinners.

The area feels like the conference center of a major hotel. It's decorated in muted colors and has abstract pictures of horses lining the walls. There are televisions hanging from the ceilings and leather chairs arranged in lobbies. The betting counters look like registration desks at hotels, modern elevators and escalators stand by to sweep crowds through the complex.It's a far cry from the old Churchill Downs, a place infamous for its lack of restrooms, particularly for women, rickety elevators that would leave reporters stranded between floors and crowded corridors.

The second half of the renovation takes place at the clubhouse and won't be completed until April 2005. It's this section that has traditionally been the home to Millionaires' Row - the place where musician Toby Keith, actress Tara Reid, former pro quarterback Warren Moon and Joe Millionaire watched last year's Derby. These tickets used to be handed down generation to generation, but more recently they have landed in the hands of corporate sponsors, such as Visa. Last year someone tried to sell one on eBay for $15,000.

At the heart of the current construction is a 360-foot-long expanse that makes up the track's prime seating areas, running from the historic Twin Spires section to an area just beyond the finish line.

To make way for second-phase construction, crews began the demolition of six floors of this section in July and removed thousands of tons of debris from the site within six weeks. In early September, crews began erecting what would eventually become 4,500 tons of structural steel for the new clubhouse structure. Large areas of three floors of the new structure will be open to the public during all of Derby week.

The new clubhouse will feature a new Millionaire's Row, more suites, a food court, two lounges, a simulcast theater, new simulcast wagering areas and press box.

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E-mail jhannah@enquirer.com

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