Churchill Downs Inc. unveiled plans Tuesday for its latest effort to make more money from Kentucky Derby Week — a sixth-floor, finish-line venue that stands to make Millionaire’s Row look like a simple banquet hall.
Part of a $9 million renovation, The Mansion at Churchill Downs will be carved from the current press box and an adjacent room once set aside for big bettors.
Though The Mansion will offer the best view of the track, it may not be used much beyond Oaks and Derby days — when 320 invitation-only customers will pay thousands to get in and enjoy the comforts of home. If home is Tara, that is.
The price of admission will depend on just how much opulence the customer desires, but packages will begin in the thousands of dollars for Oaks and Derby, track President Kevin Flanery said. A track spokesman said pricing is still being finalized for other days.
Mansion guests will arrive by red carpet and a private elevator, can retire to a library between races, watch their food be prepared and have a butler attend to them. Above all, it will afford high-end customers one of the best views of the track’s marquee event as they step onto a balcony.
“It’s going to be an experience that really is unparalleled, not just at this racetrack, not just in racing, but as far as we can find, an experience unlike any in any other sporting venue,” Flanery said. Though use of The Mansion outside of Derby Week will be limited, Flanery said it could be available for an occasional wedding or other event.
The move furthers the Louisville-based gambling and racing company’s efforts to maximize profits from its signature events. Churchill made record amounts off this year’s Derby Week and figures to make more with a high-end club. But Flanery declined to offer revenue projections for how much The Mansion could add to that total.
He stopped short of calling it Billionaires Row, but said “it is an experience a notch above anything else that’s ever been offered at Churchill Downs.”
He said Mansion customers will be those willing to pay to be pampered and have access to Derby events without the hassle of being among the crowd of 160,000 that typically turns out. It could be “a mix of hopefully celebrities, executives, local people (and) national people.”
Flanery said the goal of The Mansion is to bring new people to the Derby and Oaks and allow existing customers to upgrade from the clubhouse and Millionaires’ Row — which he described as essentially tables in a banquet setting.
“When people think of the Kentucky Derby, I don’t want them to think of one experience,” he said. “I want them to think, ‘What party do I want?’ ... This just layers one more experience on top of all of the options that we give.”
Mayor Greg Fischer applauded Churchill’s plans, saying they will help the city’s efforts to use Derby as an economic development tool to attract business.
“Churchill Downs continues to innovate and invest — this $9 million project creates jobs and an entire new fan experience to the Downs,” Fischer said. “... It also provides a great economic development platform for the city. The Mansion just upped our game.”
Besides The Mansion, the $9 million project includes demolition of the Paddock Pavilion, now used as an auxiliary press center. Replacing the pavilion will be a 30,000-square-foot open area, easing the sometimes tight crowds by the paddock and creating new food and beverage stations, lounge seating and picnic areas, Flanery said.
That will be the most visible change for general admission customers.
The area for large volume bettors known as the “Gold Room” will move to the second floor in what is now the Champions Lounge next to the simulcast betting area.
Flanery said the new Gold Room would have more space than the current one, with a paddock overlook and a short walk from trackside seating. He said many of the people in that area have trackside seating already, and accommodations are being worked out for others.
A new media center will be built on the first floor in an area once used for offices. The space is available now that Churchill Downs Inc. has moved its corporate offices to a building on Hurstbourne Parkway.
Flanery said an area of the grandstand will be set aside for media viewing of the Derby and Oaks.
Track officials said the new media center will be able to accommodate simulcast wagering, now on the second floor of the clubhouse, in the future if they choose to move it there for periods such as the summer, when there is less need for media space.
The new Gold Room will open in August. The new media center and open space by the paddock will be ready for the fall meet. The Mansion will be ready for the spring meet.
The project will mean that Churchill has spent more than $150 million in improvements at the track in roughly the past decade. The largest of those was the $122.4 million renovation completed in 2005 that added 77 luxury suites and new dining facilities. That increased Churchill’s permanent seating capacity to nearly 52,000, as well as integrated simulcast areas and other new premium venues at the track. More recently, the track spent $4 million to add permanent lighting for night racing.
Flanery said Churchill is making the improvements based on the success of the Derby and Oaks, but still needs expanded gambling to help everyday racing compete with racing in states where casinos boost purses.
“We’re not going to stand still,” he said. “That’s not what our job is. I would be ashamed to not make sure that we’re as successful as possible with the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks. It’s an honor, it’s a special trust for our team to be a part of this.”
By Gregory A. Hall
Courtesy The Courier-Journal
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