Churchill Downs weaving in history-modernity


Churchill Downs to add premium experience Image: Churchill Downs

Work is progressing on the First Turn Grandstand at the Churchill Downs (racecourse in Louisville, Kentucky, US), a new permanent location at one of the track’s best vantage points for watching the race.

‘Kentucky News’ stated that when a fan walks into the premium seating area of Churchill Downs and is handed a Mint Julep (cocktail) and a handful of M&M’s, it’s immediately clear that they’re about to get an unusual live sports experience. Churchill Downs, the annual host of the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, has long championed premium experiences – even moving to all-inclusive food and drink for premium tickets in 2022 – and is now adding newly built or renovated venues that match the high expectations.

Known as the home of the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks, the 165,000-capacity Churchill Downs Racetrack conducts Thoroughbred horse racing in Louisville, Kentucky (US) during three race meets in Spring, September and the Fall. The racetrack occupies 147 acres, featuring a one-mile dirt, oval racetrack and a seven furlong turf race course. The backside barns located behind the racetrack house more than 1,400 horses each year.

The Kentucky Derby is a horse race held annually in Louisville, Kentucky, United States, almost always on the first Saturday in May, capping the two-week-long Kentucky Derby Festival. The competition is a Grade I stakes race for three-year-old Thoroughbreds at a distance of one and a quarter miles at Churchill Downs.

The Kentucky Oaks is a Grade I stakes race for three-year-old Thoroughbred fillies staged annually in Louisville, Kentucky, United States. The race currently covers 1+1⁄8 miles at Churchill Downs, and the horses carry 121 pounds. The Kentucky Oaks is held on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby each year.

‘Kentucky News’ further stated that the parent company Churchill Downs Inc. is in the midst of another significant influx of construction projects at the revered track. The $45 million Homestretch Club opened in time for the 2022 Kentucky Derby and the $90 million First Turn Club and Grandstand will be unveiled at this year’s race scheduled to be held in May, thus replacing a temporary structure at one corner of the track that will soon become one of the preferred vantage points. Next year, the revamped Paddock Club will be completed in time for the 150th Derby, at a cost of approximately $200 million.

Louisville, Kentucky (US)-based Churchill Downs Incorporated is the parent company of Churchill Downs. The company has evolved from one racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky, to a multi American-Statewide, publicly traded company with racetracks, casinos and an online wagering company among its portfolio of businesses.

Churchill Downs First Turn Club

Cost: $90 million
Architect: Populous
Building Manager: Calhoun Construction
Project: Total capacity above 7,000, including permanent event space with a cantilevered roof, a bar on the rails of the track, a 2,000-seat dining space, and a 2,100-person ground level club.
The construction is being privately funded by Churchill Downs.

Said Sarah Contardo, Churchill Downs Vice-President, Sales and Strategy, “Every year, we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on renovations. Keeping things traditional but making sure it’s a comfortable environment to spend 10 to 12 hours a day over two days.”

There are 34 dining or club spaces at the racetrack, as well as five separate private suite areas. Premium is taken seriously at Churchill Downs, a venue with tiered seating called ‘Millionaire’s Row’ and where the only general admission tickets to the Kentucky Derby are offered.

Stated Brian Ruede, head honcho of QuintaEvents, whose company has worked with Churchill Downs on premium experiences for nearly 15 years, “They were an early adopter of the move toward the experiential economy. We really want to share that kind of history as partners.”

And they’ve leaned into investing to balance nostalgia and innovation, and they’ve been really successful in a certain niche, improving year after year.”

With help over the past decade from the celebrated design studio Populous, Churchill Downs has carefully modernized a space steeped in tradition and has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark.

Added Contardo, “When you’re in one of our locations that we’ve built over the last eight years, you have a very clear sense of the place. I am not just in a nice dining room that can be in any hotel or any place in the world. We want you to know that you are here at Churchill Downs and we are honoring our heritage and history.”

Populous developed a site master plan with Churchill Downs in 2016, launching this most recent round of significant projects. Prior to the pandemic, major renovations took place in 2016, 2017 and 2018, resulting in new Starting Gate suites and a renovated main club house.

A primary focus of the work was to implement what Populous Senior Principal Kelly Kerns called a “common design language”. Previous Churchill Downs additions in the 1990s and early 2000s were larger and less sensitive to the twin spiers and traditional architecture.

Populous Senior Interior Designer Mason Hansen used Churchill Downs’ underlying design foundation as a basis for the interior design of each premium space, then personalized each space with a focus on stories related to the place, equine traditions or horse racing history.

“This is a unique opportunity to weave in history with modern-day amenities and expectations,” said Kerns, who is leading the Churchill Downs design efforts.

In that spirit, Populous built a bar within the First Turn Club, which of course serves the Mint Julep – a drink that became the Derby’s official cocktail in the 1930s but has been associated with Kentucky horse racing for nearly two centuries – and is topped off by a new LED screen that’s more than nine feet tall and spans 19 feet on one side of the bar and nearly 26 feet on the other.

Added Hansen, “We take it really seriously to honor the past, but also bring it into the future.”

The First Turn project will have space for 7,000 patrons, will include a bar along the track’s rails, a dining room, and a ground-level club.

Contrado informed that every derby since 2012 has had a temporary structure, but the annual expense of the temporary setup made less sense each year, especially as demand increased.

Churchill Downs had plans to build a $300 million hotel on the site, but opted for three projects scheduled to open between 2022 and 2024, promising immediate financial returns.

The new and permanent First Turn – on the West side of the site – has arguably the best view of the track and the Twin Spires. This is why the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) set up its broadcast on that side of Churchill Downs and will have a permanent broadcast location at the new First Turn Club, including studio space.

The structure, covered by a 100-foot cantilevered roof, will increase the capacity of the First Turn Club from 3,400 to 5,300, with a 2,000-seat dining space that can also double as a year-round event space, and a seating capacity of more than 2,000.

This is significant for the venue, which has rapidly grown its special events business over the last three to four years, including receptions and parties for conventions held in Louisville. Outside of the Derby, Churchill Downs hosted over 400 non-race day events last year. The First Turn Special Event guests can enjoy the 2,100-person ground level club, which runs a football field one and a half length along the rails of the track.

The different ways Churchill Downs used the First Turn area meant that its food service setup needed to handle special event groups of various sizes as well as a constant flow of all-inclusive premium patrons on race days. Most premium areas already have their own kitchens, so it’s all about serving food in the fastest possible way.

Hansen further stated, “We have to design for many different scenarios, especially as we create all different scales of products that can be used throughout the year.”

Equally important to the experience is easy access to amenities vital to the experience: TVs, betting windows, restrooms, and food and drink services are all close to the First Turn seating areas. Ease of access, all-inclusive and a guest stepping foot inside First Turn with a Mint Julep should make for a memorable Churchill Downs visit for premium customers.

Added Contardo, “It’s hard to have a bad experience when it’s just the beginning.”

The Paddock Club, expected to open in 2024 for the 150th running of the Derby (the name of a race for three-year-old horses that takes place each year. In the United States, it refers particularly to the Kentucky Derby).

Pimlico Race Course

The 14,852-capacity Pimlico Race Course is a thoroughbred horse racetrack in Baltimore, Maryland (US), most famous for hosting the Preakness Stakes. Its name is derived from the 1660s when English settlers named the area where the facility currently stands in honor of the Olde Ben Pimlico’s Tavern in London, UK.

The Preakness Stakes is an American thoroughbred horse race held on Armed Forces Day which is also the third Saturday in May each year at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland. It is a Grade I race run over a distance of 9.5 furlongs on dirt. Colts and geldings carry 126 pounds, fillies 121 pounds.

The home of The Preakness is set for major improvements that will make the venue more useful to the community on non-racing days, including a possible 30-degree bend of the track to create more room for development. According to the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA), which is overseeing the project, construction should begin late this Summer.

The following year, crews will tear down the permanent grandstands, which will be replaced in 2025 and 2026 with a smaller glass-walled clubhouse and grass berm. In 2025, crews will tear down the club house and build a new one in 2026. The MSA has a $375 million budget for improvements to the Pimlico and Laurel Park. According to the MSA, $220 million has been earmarked for Pimlico. The architectural firm Ayers Saint Gross is serving as the architect on the Pimlico project.

Kansas City, Missouri (US)-based Populous is a global architectural and design practice specializing in sports facilities, arenas and convention centers, as well as the planning and design of major special events. Populous was created through a management buyout in January 2009, becoming independently owned and operated.

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