CRAWFORD | Sneaking into the Churchill Downs Mansion: A four-step tour
WDRB Eric Crawford and assistant news director Jen Keeney made an impromptu visit to Churchill Downs' most exclusive level this week. What they found.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A quick break from Kentucky Derby coverage, to provide a bit of background from a party. Now, I don't get much into the party-celebrity scene at the Derby. There are lots of other people who don't have mud (and other stuff) on their shoes from the backside and track who do a better job of that than I do.
But Churchill Downs director of communications Darren Rogers dropped a ticket to the Derby Media Party on my desk Thursday, and since it was the end of the day, and the party was just up in Churchill Downs' 4th floor stakes room, I went on up.
It was a very nice affair, with food and an open bar. Churchill Downs is very gracious to throw it, somewhere around town, every year.
While there, I ran into WDRB assistant news director Jen Keeney, who advised me that there was a handicapping seminar happening up on the sixth floor, now otherwise known at Churchill as "The Mansion." She suggested we go check it out.
For any members of Churchill's management reading this, I will say in my own defense that I was asked to perform this mission by a superior. Jen is my boss, and no less important to those of us who write, my editor. So, you know, if a rule was bent, I was just following orders. I'll ban myself next year.
But Thursday night, we decided to go see what all the fuss was about. This is an area of Churchill that the average fan doesn't get to see. Even the average media people don't get to see it every year.
You know the old saying that if you have to ask how much something is, you can't afford it? I have to ask how much it costs to spend Derby day up there. So, you know, I probably have a better chance of riding a horse in the Derby than I do of attending a Derby in the Mansion.
So here, goes, a four-step tour through the place, for any of you who find yourselves in the same situation I am:
1. THE VIEW OF DOWNTOWN. Keeney left her phone downstairs, so as not to look like some idiot tourist on a sightseeing junket. I didn't think of that. Actually (quick aside) the whole "Mansion" part of it didn't dawn on me when we first walked out onto the terrace. Pretty soon, she said, "Wow, look at that downtown view."
Not an hour before, there had been a shooting at the Pegasus Parade downtown. Every day, our news department on the ground covers all manner of upheaval on the streets and in the schools of Louisville. That's a column, a year's worth of columns, in itself.
But from this height, the city is beautiful. I don't say that enough. I write a lot about what's wrong on the ground, because there is a lot that's wrong on the ground. I cuss the place every time I have to drive downtown.
But from here, you see the skyline rise from a blanket of green, framed by those iconic spires on your right, and the Ohio River behind. There are bigger places. We have problems here. But it is a beautiful place.
2. I'VE BEEN HERE BEFORE. That view isn't exactly new. Today's "Mansion" was yesterday's press box. This was the headquarters for every Derby I ever covered until the media was relocated to a ground-floor simulcast facility in 2013.
The press box, and the local and national writers and reporters who worked in it, were very important in establishing the Kentucky Derby as one of the nation's premier sporting events. Col. Matt Winn, who built the modern Derby, knew that. He ran special trains from Chicago and New York to Louisville to make sure it was convenient for national media to get to the race.
Today, most national writers are web-based, and the Derby, as a writer's event as we once knew it, is as much a memory as the old press box.
I found myself wondering, after pulling on a door handle with the gold letter "M" on it, what legendary sportswriters Red Smith or Jim Murray would've written about all this.
As for me, I've written about it all before. I won't bore you with a rehash.
3. IN THE MANSION. Think luxury suite meets Trump Tower. I remember hearing Barbara Walters say of an interview in Donald Trump's residence, "If it looks like gold, it is gold." That may not quite be the case in the Mansion, but I'd say they've still achieved the effect they were looking for, of a richly decorated interior that looks more like your living room than a box at a sporting event -- or at least as much as something like that can be achieved.
It's more like three or four living rooms strung together, with buffet stations and a bar in the middle.
Now, the only areas we saw, I believe, were the terrace, bar and dining room areas. There's also the library, foyer, parlor, living room and veranda.
But I was also struck by this: No matter how nice it was inside, the real thing to be envied in this place, and I think the ultimate reason for its appropriation from the media, was the view of the track from the outside. The overview, just past the finish line, is the best on the facility.
When you get right down to it, they have better food in the mansion (Edward Lee, executive chef of 610 Magnolia and MilkWood, and Tim Veeser, Director of Private Events at Spiaggia, are running the show this year), but they still pour the same Woodford Reserve you can get down on the ground floor.
Some things can't be improved upon. You can sit in a nice room anywhere. But you can't improve upon the view of the race you can get from the old press box vantage point.
4. THE EXIT. We were about to turn into the bar in fact, when someone with a name badge came called to us and said, "Were you just . . . " That's normally the cue to wrap up your little tour, especially if you're not supposed to be on a little tour to start with.
So now I've seen the Mansion up close. It's nice.
I do miss the oversized picture of longtime Daily Racing Form writer Joe Hirsch. And the many pictures of sportswriters who have covered the event who have passed away. At least I can say I knew it when was a place for working folks, and count myself lucky to have covered the race from its vantage point a time or two.
There are worse things, though, than heading back down to celebrate Derby with everyone else.
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