Day 29, Monday, August 13, 2018
Most years, I sit in my living room on the first Saturday in May and watch the Kentucky Derby on TV. Live from Churchill Downs, the field of colts and a few fillies attempt to become the winner of the Derby and have a chance at winning the Triple Crown, a title which has become the most prestigious in horse racing. The Kentucky Derby is the first race of the Triple Crown, which also contains the Preakness and the Belmont, raced at other tracks around the country over a five week stretch.
I have always wanted to visit Churchill Downs, especially on Derby Day, to see the crazy hats and feel the excitement of race day! I spent a few days in Louisville and had a chance to visit the racetrack, although there wasn’t any racing going on that day. For $15, you can visit the track’s museum and get a tour of the track. Considering that pre-sale event prices to the infield for the Kentucky Derby start at $65 and $85 on the day of the race, $15 is pretty good! Of course, other racing days at Churchill Downs aren’t so expensive, so a typical day at the track can be pretty affordable if you aren’t betting and losing! One day, I will be there on Derby Day!
Churchill Downs opened in 1875; after Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. (William Clark’s grandson) leased the land from his uncles John and Henry Churchill, a prominent Louisville family for many years. Clark sold subscriptions to the racing club, and used the money to develop the track. Racing has occurred here since that time, with a number of changes to the track over the years. The first Kentucky Derby was held in 1875, which means that 2020’s Derby will be the 146th running!
The iconic twin spires on the grandstands weren’t placed until 1895, but have survived weather events since that time, including a tornado that damaged the stables. The grandstands seat about 50,000, but it is standing room only on the infield on Derby Day and the crowds can grow to almost 170,000 people!
My tour ticket included an interesting movie on the history of the track. They usher you into a large oval shaped room, and you sit on swivel stools to watch the film, which is projected on the wall above you all around the oval room. You can swivel on your stool to get a better view of the scenes, and because it is above you, nobody’s head is in the way! Then the docent took us out to the track – you get to see the grandstands, the saddling area, the track, the winner’s circle and the other views you see on television when you watch the Derby on TV. They have plaques showing all of the names of the Kentucky Derby winners over the years, and marking the names of those who won the Triple Crown. Of the 146 winners of the Derby, only thirteen of them have also won the Triple Crown. Three of the Derby winners have been fillies.
The tour was a bit canned; they clearly have memorized a script and move the tour groups along pretty quickly, but it was really interesting to see the track! The museum was cool too, with exhibits on the history of the track and the horses that have raced there. They had a display of hats and the tradition of crazy hats at the Derby, a display of the horseshoes that race horses wear, and an exhibit on the history of African Americans in the Churchill Downs racing industry. Thirteen of the fifteen horses in the first Kentucky Derby were ridden by African American jockeys, and fifteen of the first twenty-eight Derbies were won by black jockeys. Of course, it took a long time for them to be recognized for these accomplishments.
After the tour, I did enjoy the restaurant at the track. They had a special where you could try a Mint Julep and keep the commemorative glass (which actually turned out to be a Kentucky Oaks stemless wine glass, rather than a traditional mint julep cup, but I liked that too). I use it all the time! I learned that I’m not a fan of Mint Juleps – I don’t think I’ll ever be a Bourbon girl… I did learn that I love Louisville Hot Brown though! It was a very messy sandwich, with Texas toast, turkey, bacon, tomato, cheeses and herbs all cooked together in a casserole dish, and it was so delicious! The one at Churchill Downs was so full of gooey goodness I didn’t even know it was supposed to be a sandwich until I looked up the recipe. I haven’t had it since, but maybe I should try to make it at home sometime!
After my visit to the track, I drove around Louisville to check out some of the historic homes, and then went back to my campground to relax at the pool. It was a fun day!