- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The famous twin spires at Churchill Downs glisten in the sunlight, towering above an empty track that soon will be trampled by some of the world’s best athletes.

The paddock’s brown grass will be green by then, and colorful flowering landscapes will surround the contenders as they are saddled and paraded around in an atmosphere fit for a king.

It’s here where an elite group of horses get the chance of a lifetime — to cross the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby.

“They know what it’s all about,” says Gene Logan, a tour guide at the Kentucky Derby Museum.

He’s counting down the days until the first Saturday in May — which falls on May 6 this year — commonly dubbed the “greatest two minutes” in sports.

“Derby Day in Louisville; there’s nothing like it,” Mr. Logan says, walking out into the area where next month, horse owners — men in suits and women wearing flamboyant hats — will admire 3-year-old thoroughbreds before the race.

Visitors to the museum and the famous racetrack can sense what the place will be like, beginning with a film that surrounds them with the sights and sounds of the Kentucky Derby projected onto a racetrack-shaped screen.

Outside the theater, a model horse representing last year’s Derby winner, Giacomo, and his jockey, Mike Smith, displays a garland of about 360 artificial roses. The real version is given to the winner of the Run for the Roses each year.

The museum’s exhibits cover nearly every aspect of the Kentucky Derby and the people who make it happen — owners, trainers, jockeys, veterinarians and breeders, to name a few.

You can watch past Kentucky Derby races or sit atop a fake horse while following video of a race filmed by someone in the saddle. Step on the scale to see if you meet the 126-pound weight limit for jockeys and their gear.

For an additional fee, the museum also offers tours of the stables, the area where jockeys prepare for races, the press box and halls where the rich and famous roam at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.

Visiting Louisville during Derby week, or any other time of year, should include a dose of horse racing and Kentucky Derby history, and the museum is one place to get it.

Tickets to next month’s Derby, one of the world’s premiere sporting events, are nearly impossible to find. Most ticket holders have connections to horse racing, and those lucky enough to have a seat on Derby Day pay $65 for a bleacher seat on the track’s inside or as much as $600 for a premium seat overlooking the track.

You still can get into Churchill Downs on Derby Day with a $40 general admission ticket, but don’t expect to see much of the race. The track’s infield becomes a giant party place, popular among young people.

If you’re not set on sharing your Derby Day with 150,000 others at Churchill Downs, there are plenty of other ways to see the horses and racetrack.

Dawn at the Downs offers early risers a free opportunity to watch horses, including Derby contenders, exercise on the track Monday through Thursday during Derby week.

Live races for the spring meet are held at Churchill Downs April 29 through July 16. Racing also resumes for a fall session. Adult general admission for most of the races is $2.

“It’s a completely authentic experience: the beauty of the horses, the smell of the turf, the sound of hooves on the track. If it’s a gorgeous Kentucky day, there’s nothing else like it,” says Stacey Yates of the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

If horse racing isn’t your thing, make plans to attend one of dozens of events planned during Louisville’s Kentucky Derby Festival, which starts two weeks before the race and is in full stride in the days approaching the Derby.

The main part of the festival, now in its 51st year, kicks off April 22 with a large fireworks show that is said to be the biggest in the country.

Hundreds of thousands of people converge on downtown Louisville for the half-hour show, which has fireworks shooting off from barges on the Ohio River and others cascading from a downtown bridge. An air show with military and civilian aircraft fills the afternoon hours leading to the fireworks.

In the 1970s, the festival started adding more racing-themed events.

There are hot-air balloons, decorated beds, marathon runners and servers carrying wineglasses during official festival races. Don’t forget “the slowest two hours in sports”: the steamboat race on the Ohio River.

“It’s special because it brings the whole community together,” says Aimee Boyd from the Derby Festival. “Everything is coming to life, it’s spring, the flowers are blooming, and it’s an exciting time of year.”

If you want to visit Louisville and avoid the Derby-season crowds, there are other permanent attractions in the area.

Derby and more in Louisville

LOUISVILLE, Ky.

Try for general admission tickets, which can be purchased on the day of the race, May 6, for $40. You won’t get a seat, and you won’t see much of the race, but you could catch a glimpse of a celebrity and enjoy the daylong party. Or enter at Churchill Downs’ Gate 10, bring a blanket and find a spot on the grassy slope away from the infield craziness.

DERBY MUSEUM

At Churchill Downs, 700 Central Ave., Gate 1; visit www.derbymuseum.org or call 502/637-1111. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday; closed Derby Day. Adults $9; children 5 to 11 $6.

Track tours offered throughout the day, $6 or $10. Reservations required for 7 and 8:30 a.m. tours, which include a look at the horses exercising.

ACCOMMODATIONS

Hotel rooms are hard to find Derby week, so book well in advance. The city’s convention and visitors bureau offers package deals and can help book rooms; go to www.gotolouisville.com or call 502/584-2121.

FOOD AND DRINK

A visit to Louisville isn’t complete without a hot brown (an open-faced carved turkey sandwich with bacon, tomato and cheese, created in the 1920s by the chef at the historic Brown Hotel) and Derby Pie (a trademarked dessert with chocolate chips and walnuts). Finish the meal with a mint julep, a sweet drink of Kentucky bourbon and fresh mint that has become the Derby’s official drink.

DOWNS AT DAWN

Monday through Thursday mornings of Derby week (May 1 through 5) visitors get in free to watch hundreds of horses exercise on the Churchill Downs racetrack. You also can arrange to have breakfast there; visit www.churchilldowns.com/events/May.

FESTIVAL

Highlights include Thunder Over Louisville air and fireworks show April 22, the Great Steamboat Race May 3 and the Pegasus Parade May 4; visit www.kdf.org.

OTHER ATTRACTIONS

• Louisville Slugger Museum: 800 W. Main St.; www.sluggermuseum.org or 877/775-8443. Adults $9; children 6 to 12 $4. Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays noon to 5 p.m. Hours vary by season.

• Muhammad Ali Center: 144 N. Sixth St.; www.alicenter.org or 502/584-9254. Adults $9; children 6 to 12 $4. Monday through Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays noon to 5 p.m.

• Frazier Historical Arms Museum: 829 W. Main St.; www.frazierarmsmuseum.org or 502/753-5663. Adults $9; children 6 to 13 $6. Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays noon to 5 p.m.

• Louisville bourbon tours: www.kybourbon.com/english/pages/trail.html offers details on visiting Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and other distilleries.

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