- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The old Kentucky home is going away.The Twin Spires, which seem to stand watch at venerable Churchill Downs, will remain, but much of the rest of the grand old track will undergo a $127 million renovation weeks after the 129th Kentucky Derby, which will be held today.Empire Maker is the 6-5 favorite in the 16-horse field, which starts this evening at 6:04, but the second-most anticipated event at Churchill Downs this year will occur in July, when the track’s face-lift begins. The home of the “most exciting two minutes in American sports” is going corporate. Luxury suites will transform Millionaires’ Row. The rich and famous will leave the open-air terraces where gawkers can catch a glimpse of singer Janet Jackson, television personality Anna Nicole Smith and director Steven Spielberg and reappear in smaller suites above the finish line with unobstructed views and private restrooms.There will be wet bars and balconies with panoramic views of the city skyline, self-service betting machines, televisions and computers. No more will the floppy hats of wannabe Derby debutantes block the view of old-money blue bloods. Add Churchill Downs to an ever-growing list of outdated sports venues looking for new streams of revenue. Maryland’s Cole Field House has been replaced by the Comcast Center. RFK Stadium lost the Washington Redskins to FedEx Field. The Boston Red Sox have even built seats atop the Green Monster at Fenway Park. Owners’ boxes have lined tracks for two centuries, so why not add luxury boxes as racing competes for the entertainment dollar?”Churchill Downs had a crossroads ahead of either fixing it up or gutting it,” said Louisville trainer T.V. Smith, who enters Offlee Wild in today’s Derby. “They were getting a lot of static about not getting a new facility. I can’t fault them for trying to modernize the place.”And yet, this is a delicate renovation.Altering one of Kentucky’s most famous landmarks is akin to painting the White House red. Sure, old Churchill Downs, its grandstand built in 1895, has brick floors that often grab women’s high heels and not nearly enough elevators for a six-level building. And, yes, it’s a maddening maze — there are dining rooms without kitchens, dead-end hallways, hidden rooms and half-stairways — seemingly built by Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter, instead of a late-19th-century architect. But it was that quirkiness that made it beloved by Kentuckians.”It’s human nature,” jockey Pat Day said. “We don’t like change, but once we do, it’s acceptable and for the best.”Ultimately, Churchill Downs’ management realized that the Twin Spires were the only things that shouldn’t be touched. The 108-year-old steeples are the centerpiece of the renovations and the corporate logo of the track that has become one of the nation’s premier racing centers.”If there were concerns, it was the Twin Spires,” said John Asher, Churchill Downs vice president of communications. “It’s like the McDonald’s arches or Nike swooshes. They mean so much to people. It has been difficult to maintain the history and romance of Churchill. It ranks with the great sports shrines like Yankee Stadium and Augusta National, but we did keep the most historic part of the track, and the theme is the same.”Day added: “The Twin Spires will be there forever. That’s Churchill Downs.”In racing, lineage is everything, so Churchill Downs hired a local construction company that was the successor to the firm that built the track. The first 23 suites, which debut today, quickly sold out in spite of their $62,500 price for Derby Day alone. An additional 42 are coming for 2005, along with 5,300 grandstand seats that will stretch capacity to 51,000. The other 100,000 fans on Derby day walk around the grandstand or the infield.The next 18 months at Churchill Downs won’t be pleasing to the eye. The 2004 Run for the Roses has been dubbed the “Demolition Derby” by track officials. Thousands of longtime seat holders will be moved or denied access, and that is sure to cause trouble. Seats are so coveted that many are part of prenuptial agreements and divorce settlements.Tens of thousands might skip the race next year, but that seems unlikely, as the Derby and yesterday’s Oaks generate $217 million for the area.”If 150,000 people want to come to the Derby next year, we’ll find a way to do it,” Mr. Asher said. “But it’s short-term pain and long-term gain.”Triple Crown races have been moved before. The 1964 Belmont Stakes was raced at nearby Aqueduct during Belmont Park clubhouse renovations. The Preakness Stakes was relocated from Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore to Morris Park in New York from 1890 to 1907. Expected Pimlico renovations could send the Preakness to Laurel Park for one year as soon as 2005.However, Churchill Downs never considered moving the race. The Derby withstood World War II travel bans, the outlawing of wagering and Prohibition, which made mint juleps only taste sweeter.There will be few dry eyes when the Derby horses enter the track as the crowd sings “My Old Kentucky Home.” There may not be a dry eye come July, when a century of repainted white and hunter-green wood and cracked bricks makes way for the 21st century.”The culture is so much a part of people’s lives that when the demolition comes, it will be bittersweet for some people,” Mr. Asher said. “It will be ‘My Kinda Old Kentucky Home.’ ”

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