Mak­ing the Ken­tucky Derby even more posh

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - BRUCE SCHREINER AND GARY B. GRAVES LOUISVILLE, KY. —

Toni Good­man was close enough to see the horses kick­ing up dirt as they raced past, hav­ing spent a mere $5 for her trackside seat to an event just days be­fore the Ken­tucky Derby.

But the 56-year-old Ken­tucky na­tive won’t be any­where near Churchill Downs on Satur­day to watch the Run for the Roses.

“I think the Derby’s great,” Good­man said be­fore the start of a claim­ing race fea­tur­ing also-rans. “It lets peo­ple come in to see how beau­ti­ful our state is. It’s just not doable for me.”

One of the great sport­ing events has long been a world of con­trast­ing styles, with a mas­sive gulf sep­a­rat­ing the wealthy and fa­mous preen­ing on Mil­lion­aires Row from the Tshirt and jeans crowd in the in­field. Ma­jor ren­o­va­tions com­pleted in re­cent years, most of them geared to­ward well-heeled fans, seem to have put more dis­tance be­tween those worlds.

This year’s av­er­age ticket price to at­tend the Derby — a two-minute horse race high­light­ing a full day of rac­ing, par­ty­ing and peo­ple watch­ing — is $432, ac­cord­ing to VividSeats.com. The Derby typ­i­cally gen­er­ates a brisk sec­ondary ticket mar­ket as well.

The trend to of­fer high-end pack­ages at sports venues reaches far be­yond the Ken­tucky Derby. Any venue host­ing a Su­per Bowl, World Se­ries or even an All-Star Game cre­ates an ex­pe­ri­ence to cater to high rollers. New sta­dium con­struc­tion of­ten in­volves lux­ury suites, technology up­grades and other perks that cater to a high-in­come spec­ta­tor. But such projects of­ten face crit­i­cism that they squeeze out mid­dle- and lower-in­come fans.

Churchill Downs seems to burst at the seams on Derby Day, when more than 160,000 peo­ple pack into the ven­er­a­ble track and in­field. Churchill’s par­ent com­pany has pumped about $250 mil­lion into ren­o­va­tions since the early 2000s. The in­vest­ment is meant to max­i­mize rev­enue from the Derby and Ken­tucky Oaks, a race for three­year-old fil­lies the day be­fore the Derby.

This year’s $16-mil­lion up­grade mod­ern­ized the sec­ond-floor club­house. The up­date in­cludes a fresh Twin Spires Club Elite Gold Room exclusive to VIP bet­tors. It’s ad­ja­cent to an en­larged Cham­pi­ons Bar that in­cludes cov­ered bal­conies with ta­ble seat­ing of­fer­ing prime views of the paddock.

Such up­grades are geared to­ward fans will­ing to shell out big money for panoramic views, sump­tu­ous buf­fets and ac­cess to bet­ting windows and re­strooms with­out lines. Op­tions for pre­mium seat­ing seem al­most as nu­mer­ous as the field of Derby horses. De­mand out­paces avail­able seat­ing, and Churchill is pre­par­ing an­other ex­pan­sion.

Work has started on the Start­ing Gate Suites, sched­uled to open in time for the 2018 Derby.

The suites — be­ing built above the third-floor grand­stand — will fea­ture pri­vate din­ing ta­bles and a bal­cony over­look­ing the start­ing gate at the top of the home-stretch.

Track of­fi­cials said pric­ing is ex­pected soon for the suites, the key part of the $37-mil­lion project that will boost Derby Day ca­pac­ity by more than 1,800 seats.

“They’ll have a bird’s-eye view,” said track Gen­eral Man­ager Ryan Jor­dan.

Other up­scale spots to watch the Derby in­clude the Fin­ish Line Suites, Turf Club, Jockey Club Suites and the most exclusive of all — The Man­sion, a tony en­clave perched on the sixth floor of the club­house.

Paul Am­burgey and his wife, Linda, spend Derby Day like many other Louisvil­lians — at an off­track party. They come to Churchill a few times each race meet, but don’t even try to get Derby tick­ets. The rea­son: “The crowds, the cost,” Linda Am­burgey said.

“They cater more to the big money,” her hus­band said. “Ev­ery­thing they’re build­ing is for peo­ple who have the money to pay for all this new stuff they’ve got.”

Churchill of­fi­cials point out that ren­o­va­tions have im­proved the Derby ex­pe­ri­ence at all price points. Peo­ple throng­ing to the in­field pay $80 or $60 apiece for ac­cess to the day­long Derby party.

CHARLIE RIEDEL, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Churchill Downs’ par­ent com­pany has pumped $250 mil­lion into ren­o­va­tions since the early 2000s. But many have catered to well-heeled fans will­ing to shell out thou­sands of dol­lars for panoramic views, sump­tu­ous buf­fets, ac­cess to bet­ting windows and re­strooms with­out lines, and de­mand out­paces avail­able seat­ing.

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