SUNDAY EDITION | Churchill Downs ‘seriously’ weighs general admission cap as Kentucky Derby grows
With record crowds in recent years and limited amount of infield space, track officials acknowledge they may someday need to curb the number of standing-room tickets
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In its quest to make the Kentucky Derby even bigger, Churchill Downs increasingly has carved up the 26-acre infield for temporary structures with views of the racetrack’s iconic twin spires.
The track now has 2,200 covered seats in the infield during Derby Week -- some costing more than $1,000 each – not far from the general admission crowd known for its rowdiness.
The expansion comes as the Derby and Kentucky Oaks both have set attendance records in the past two years. And with more ticket demand expected and a “finite amount” of infield real estate, track officials acknowledge they may someday need to limit the number of standing-room tickets, Churchill spokesman John Asher said.
“These last few years have been the first time we’ve really seriously thought about that and tried to look down the road and formulate plans in that direction,” Asher said, adding there are no immediate plans to cap those tickets.
The infield has an estimated capacity of 70,000. Its crowds are fluid because ticket buyers can move between the infield and paddock areas using tunnels beneath the track.
The area’s image has been tempered somewhat by the temporary structures now lining almost all of the Churchill stretch during Oaks and Derby. The most recent addition, the Starting Gate Lounge, opened last year.
In that way, it’s a far cry from years past.
At the 100th Derby in 1974, which set an attendance record at the time, fans crowded the rail in the infield. Footage of the race shows some people close enough to reach onto the track as the horses turned into the home stretch.
The addition of the Matt Winn Turf Course in 1985 changed the infield’s outer ring. By adding temporary structures since then, Churchill officials have reduced the amount of space for those buying general admission tickets – many who certainly aren’t interested in horses.
As a native Louisvillian, Kelly Holland has watched races from elevated seats and the infield’s ground level. In her view, not all of the changes in the infield and elsewhere have made Churchill more appealing.
“I don’t like how commercial so much of it has become,” she said. “I understand the profit interest, but the track is no longer attractive.”
The grandstand and clubhouse areas also have changed. In 2005, the track completed a $121 million renovation that added dozens of luxury suites. Some racing purists bristled at luxury boxes dwarfing the twin spires – once the track’s highest point.
But Churchill has had its largest crowds since then. In May 2008, coming off near-record Derby attendance, Churchill considered adding 35 permanent suites in the infield and applied for city approval.
Two of the buildings would have flanked the winner’s circle, while the other was to be built closer to the far turn. Each would have had a rooftop deck.
Metro government’s zoning adjustment board approved the request, but the track halted its plans during a revenue-sharing dispute with horsemen. Officials at the time cited a need to cut unnecessary spending across Churchill Downs Inc.’s U.S. racetracks.
The project never resumed.
“We looked strongly at that and decided to go with temporary suites each year,” Asher said.
Derby Day tickets for those seats were selling for $1,100 to $3,000 on StubHub last week. Not including fees, tickets to the Luxury Trackside Club near the winner’s circle were selling for $1,650 on Ticketmaster.
General admission tickets for the Derby started at $60 apiece but increase in price until the day of the race, when they sell for $80 each.
Asher recalled a saying among infield-goers: “I went out to the Derby. I had a heck of a time, but I never saw a horse.” But those days are over; in 2014, the track added a 171-foot-wide video board in the infield that can be seen across the facility.
Shannon James wasn’t able to see that board when he sat in one of the infield Turf Suites last year during “Thurby,” the Thursday of Derby Week. But he and his group had their own private bar, bartender and buffet.
James said he has attended races during Derby Week the past eight years and observed firsthand the infield’s transformation, including the new suites.
Asked if the changes to the infield have made it better, he paused. “If you can afford to go those suites, it’s better,” he said. “But I think it’s pricing out most of the population.”
Meanwhile, Churchill Downs Inc. continues to invest in its flagship track.
There have been nearly $250 million in renovations and upgrades since 2001, including current plans to build dozens of new suites and three floors of dining space.
Construction on the $37 million Starting Gate Suites is scheduled to start in May, adding space for more than 1,100 people by next spring.
“As I’ve told people many times over the years,” Asher said, “here at Churchill Downs we build the church for Easter Sunday.”
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