Churchill Downs

Louisville Kentucky is know to much of the world as the home of Churchill Downs, the venue for the Kentucky Derby. I’m not much of a horse race fan, but I felt that I needed to visit and see what all the hype was about.

Like any other sport, there’s a season. I visited on a Saturday before the season started and took the cheap tour ($15) that provided entry into the museum.

Churchill Downs and Museum
Barbaro statue

Before the tour started there was a 360 degree high definition video of the 2015 Kentucky Derby. It was truly inspiring, even for a jaded guy like me who can’t be bothered to watch the race on TV.

Jockey Pat Day statue

The guided portion of the tour takes you inside the grounds. This statue of jockey Pat Day is actually taller than the real life guy.

Famous spire
Video board

The jockeys are weighed before the race and have lead weights added so they weigh equally. At one time the guys would cut the weights loose along the back where they couldn’t be seen to lighten the load for the horse. That’s where the term “get the lead out” was allegedly coined. Now they are weighed after the race like Formula 1 racers so they can’t gain an unfair advantage.

Louisville Cardinals football stadium
Seating chart
Retired Derby contestant

The back area has the remains of derby winners buried in the garden. Since horses are so big, they don’t typically bury the whole horse, only the head to represent the will to win, the heart to represent courage, and hooves to represent speed. Secretariat, Man O’ War, and Seattle Slew are the only horses honored with full burials.

Original (finish line) post

The finish line post was used from 1956 to 1985,

Measurement of strides

The museum was interesting and covered a lot of Man O’ War. The circles on the floor depict the length of his strides. Usain Bolt is marked at 8 feet, Secretariat at 24 feet, and Man O’ War at 28.

The Derby is a major event that occupies the hearts and minds of nearly everybody in the city during the weeks preceding the race. There are stories of people who attend an event in the infield weeks before the race, bury their own alcohol, and then dig it up during the race weekend.

I was in town for that period but went home to Detroit for the actual race weekend. I watched it, though, since so many of my friends were planning to attend. I was hoping to see one of them in a state of inebriation. The stories were told later.

Sometimes my work colleagues invite me to events. One of the vendors had a box for an event called Downs After Dark. Food and non-alcoholic drinks were provided, along with a night of races. I arrived just before the first race.

Full paddock
Down the stretch
On the grass
Weighing in after the race

I was excited to see the jockeys being weighed.

Weighing in after the race

The area in front of the boxes provided very close access to the track.

Way to go!
Checking the football scores

University of Kentucky was losing again to University of Florida. A lot of attendees were glued to their phones. Even some workers.

Adjusting goggles

My favorite races were the ones that started right in front of the rail where I could watch the intricacies of getting the horses in the gate and starting the race.

In the gates
And they’re off
Raking while the horses are on the back straightaway

Once the race started, the gate was pulled out of the way, and the groundskeepers went out and raked the holes made by the accelerating horses. They had a couple minutes so they really didn’t seem to hurry. It reminded me of the folks who sweep the snow off the ice during a commercial break at a hockey game.

The final stretch
On the grass

Not all races were held on the dirt track. Some were shorter and on the grass inside the main track.

On the grass
Final stretch

Many of the fans were very interested in betting. My friend tried to explain it but it was beyond my comprehension. Plus I’m too cheap to lose money trying to figure it out. The bourbon was good though…

It’s true – all four feet off the ground

Hard to believe that the question of a horse’s stride was what inspired the invention of moving pictures. Of all the photos I took, that is the only one with all four hooves off the ground.

Churchill Downs didn’t make me a horse race fan, but I do have a new appreciation for it. I see why some people get hooked.

~ Freddy


I'm an engineer, a veteran, and an avid traveler. I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson - "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."

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