- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The sun shines brightly on a new Kentucky home filled with Las Vegas glamour, high-tech gadgets and luxury suites.

Welcome to Extreme Makeover Equine where Caesars Palace meets Soldier Field to form a sports venue that will attract the next generation. Today’s 131st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs transforms a sport that always relied on tradition into the new era of cushy seats, wide aisles, food courts and touch-screen wagering.

“It’s not your grandfather’s Churchill Downs,” said John Asher, vice president of communications.

But it may be your grandson’s. Churchill officials spent $121million for a facility that competes against increased wagering and entertainment options. Old railbirds debating Citation versus Secretariat are being replaced by Generation Y and even looming Generation Z fans who want to sit in comfort, watch races starting minutes apart at tracks nationwide and eat something more than a hot dog.

The stars will come out for the 6:04 p.m. televised race. Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, plus Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan are among the Hollywood contingent. Basketball’s Michael Jordan,and singers Nelly and Chubby Checker will twist through the crowd. News icon Walter Cronkite has spent several days at the track while football’s O.J. Simpson was seen in the stable area. Four hundred members of the 101st Airborne Division who served in Iraq are invited.

The women will wear prom dresses and flowery hats. The men don suits and smoke cigars. They will consume 80,000 mint juleps, sing “My Old Kentucky Home” when the horses enter the track and act sophisticated because locals take the race seriously.

But it’s a one-day tribute to Americana. Churchill Downs seeks younger patrons drawn to casinos, riverboats and Internet gaming as its regular clientele.

“This is a microwave culture today with young people,” said University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, who races horses at Churchill. “They want to get into casinos and not take a half-hour with their racing form. They want video poker.”

The 130-year-old wooden track that was saddled with a crazy network of isolated staircases, few elevators and only one kitchen passed being quaint decades ago. Layers of white and green paint no longer hid an outdated facility.

Instead, Churchill leveled nearly everything but its famed Twin Spires that are the southern city’s most recognizable landmark. The last two years were spent adding meeting rooms for parties, doubling restrooms, creating terraces within arm’s length of the spires and adding food carts that offer lobster sandwiches and Dove chocolate bars. There’s even a full-service bank.

Millionaire’s Row is now on two floors. Old money no longer has to mingle with visiting pop stars who think fashion is wearing shoes instead of sandals.

The brown sandstone walls provide a historical feel. Slate floors replaced cobblestone floors. It has a softer touch intentionally created to draw more women to the male-dominated audience.

“It’s a nice blend of the old and the new,” Churchill Chief Executive Officer Tom Meeker said, “and in some respects looks like it’s been there forever. We’ve been able to retain the history and tradition of the Derby and incorporate it with venues that are pleasing to the modern-day eye. It will have some longevity. If we had not done it, I’m not sure we could afford to have 150,000 here every first Saturday in May.”

The one downside is that the elevated grandstand and clubhouse have obscured the side views of the spires. Traditionalists started out skeptical of the construction.

“[Locals] were concerned about the Twin Spires and whether they would be diminished,” Mr. Asher said. “People who have had any doubts said it’s taken them just seconds to decide this is great. There have been a tremendous amount of smiles.”

It would be easy for Maryland Jockey Club CEO Joe De Francis to have spires envy. The Preakness Stakes comes to Pimlico Race Course on May 21 and the outdated Baltimore track can’t hold up to Churchill’s makeover.

“If we could get the Maryland legislature to appreciate the importance of racing [through slots],” Mr. De Francis said, “we might be able to create something that would be equally as eye-popping.

Meanwhile, one thing still old in Kentucky will be the bourbon used to toast the Derby winner … and its home.

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