LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- At first glance, the unveiling of details surrounding "The Mansion," formerly known as "The Joe Hirsch Media Center" at Churchill Downs would seem to have little relevance to most of us.
The closest that most people who are reading this will get to the actual Mansion -- billed as the luxury suite to end all sports' luxury suites -- is by looking at pictures. At least, that's as close as we'll get on Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks days, when the suite will be filled by invitation only.
When reporters pressed Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery on even the minimum cost of landing a Derby day spot in the mansion, he had no specific answer. Don't they know the old saying, "If you have to ask . . . "
What we got on Tuesday were some nice pictures of the new digs, which includes a living room, dining room, foyer, terrace, veranda and even a library (minus, it seems, any books). There's a private elevator, so as not to risk pesky contact with the unwashed masses. Or even the washed ones.
And certainly, and most importantly, the occupants of this space will pay far more money than the former occupants -- the media -- whose members are pretty good for publicity purposes, and who certainly donated their share of bad bets to the bottom line. But come on, look at the cars some of those media people drive. And you want to give them prime seating?
No, the crowd coming to The Mansion on Derby Day will be hand-picked and sure to make headlines -- but only if they want to make headlines.
"A mix of celebrities, executives, local people," Flanery described the potential clientele. "A mix of every walk of life."
Well, let's be honest. A mix of every walk of life in the top one percent.
It's easy to be cynical about such ventures because, honestly, most of us will never see The Mansion, except maybe on a tour, or if someone has a wedding there -- and the luxury facility will be available year-round for such events.
But this is where money is made in sports today. And if you look at the history of Churchill Downs, the development of the social and glamorous side of the race has gone hoof in hoof with its popularity and longevity. Where other races went up and down, the Derby persevered and grew in great part because of this mystique.
Churchill Downs' first clubhouse resembled a riverboat, where the "beautiful people" partied away the races. None other than Col. Matt Winn set up the first grandstand side clubhouse and sold seating. Promotional material on the Mansion says that, "Patrons will be delivered to The Mansion via private elevator, and its doors will open onto a breathtaking venue that will evoke the elegant feel and flow of a celebration at a stately home."
If the Mansion were to attract more A-list celebrities or world personalities, it only would be following in the race's historic footsteps. Winn courted celebrities with everything he could muster. An enhanced Derby "experience" might be aimed toward that. Mansion guests will have access to a private wine cellar and personal concierge.
The media itself will be moved to ground level in a new press center that won't have a view of the racetrack, which will be fine for 90 percent of us, but is a shame for the media members that cover the sport every day year round, and who contribute as much as any high roller to its worldwide visibility. No word yet on what the new press center will be named. I suggested, "Van Down By the River." One fun element of it -- one of its walls will be glass, so that the public will be able to see in while reporters are working -- or doing whatever. The new media center will be in space that was occupied by Churchill's corporate offices -- which have moved to a new building on Hurstbourne Lane.
Churchill also is establishing a new Gold Room for VIP players in what previously was called the Champions Lounge on the second floor. It will open in early August. There are also renovations in the paddock, with the destruction of the old Paddock Pavilion, which will create 30,000 more open square feet in the paddock area.
And what about the general public?
Here's the main problem Churchill Downs has. If it could manage to upgrade the televisions for the average daily patron throughout the facility, or throw out some kind of bone to the bulk of people who keep the place in business every day, some of these high-end innovations might get the kind of praise that they probably deserve.
I mean, people aren't asking for luxury keg-stand areas in the infield (though those might be nice). But the track would do well to keep enhancing areas that the largest number of fans occupy -- not just those with the largest wallet.
In the end, Churchill is doing what it has to do. There is no expanded gaming revenue coming in. It has established night racing. It has turned itself into an entertainment business.
I guess this is the last story I'll write from this press box. I'm not kidding. Just as I typed these words, construction workers rolled into the room, tape measures snapping, getting ready to put up scaffolding.
A tour group is walking through. A guide just told them, "The media is a big reason the Kentucky Derby is still around." She told the story of how Winn saved the Derby, of how he courted the media to cover the race, and that coverage led to celebrities, which led to greater notoriety.
It is, in some ways, the way of all things. New mansions arise, the race goes on, and the hoof prints fade in the dust.
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