May 5, 2017, 1:52pm EDT

Louisville-based Churchill Downs Inc. dropped $16 million this year to upgrade the second-floor clubhouse at its namesake Louisville racetrack.

The project wrapped up just a few weeks before Derby week, and it served as a warm shelter for hundreds of people escaping the rain, wind and sudden cold snap of weather that hit the Kentucky Oaks this morning.

As I previously reported, Churchill Downs has modernized about 95,000 square feet in the clubhouse to improve circulation and service. During larger events, the clubhouse typically hosts thousands of guests.

The project includes updated televisions, several bars named after past Derby winners and more points of sale and larger walkways to reduce wait times and long lines.

I took a walk around the clubhouse before noon today and found the wagering booths, bars and concession stands had heavy traffic, but the wider hallways and the numerous pay options kept the lines lean and manageable.

I also spoke to several people — grizzled Oaks and Derby veterans and first-timers alike — who were pleased with the service and quality of the products they received and were enamored with the new artwork on the walls, including a splashy mural that shows Derby jockeys, trainers and owners and immediately catches your eye.

Kenny and Lenae Kavanaugh of Jeffersonville are frequent visitors to the Kentucky Oaks and said they felt much more comfortable in the clubhouse with the wider layout and ease of service that has cut the lines.

Kenny Kavanaugh said people were almost on top of one another in the old clubhouse layout, which cheapened the experience, forced them to wait longer to buy food or drinks or place bets and made it harder to get from the clubhouse to their seats for the next race.

“Kudos to Churchill Downs for this investment,” and listening to their customers, Kenny Kavanaugh said.

Dawn Paden and George Heilman have been coming to the Derby for decades. The couple met seven years ago at the 2010 Kentucky Derby and are involved in Thoroughbred training back home in Mountain Home, Ark.

They stop into the clubhouse when they come to town, and Heilman said the renovation is a definite improvement on the old layout and should make life easier for those who use its services.

With rain and wind hitting the track hard today, Heilman expected many would look to the clubhouse for warmth and accommodations.

“It’s going to be a real test,” he said. As the day chugged along, the clubhouse filled with more people and lines did get longer.

From a broader standpoint, Heilman did express some reservations with the direction CDI has taken with its capital improvements, saying he feels the company is focusing more on luxury areas inside the track and, in the process, making the experience harder to afford for those with modest incomes.

Charles and Jennifer Ansaroff, a Boca Raton, Fla., couple, were taking in the experience inside the clubhouse’s new Aristides Lounge, named after the winner of the first Kentucky Derby.

The lounge is in a corner of the clubhouse that previously was used for storage and temporary event space during the Derby and other special events. Now, it has table seating for about 300 guests, 27 flat-screen televisions and a full-service bar. During my visit earlier today, a large crowd had filed into the lounge, where a large food spread was arranged and a band was playing.

The lounge also includes graphics honoring Aristides and his jockey, Oliver Lewis, as well as mosaic wallpaper created from vintage wagering tickets.

Charles Ansaroff in particular paid attention to what he called an old-school feel in a “prestigious” event setting.

“This place is amazing,” Ansaroff said.

Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs Racetrack, has said the clubhouse redesign is a re-imagining of Churchill Downs’ vaunted history, paying respects to the past while modernizing for the future.

Scott and Lisa Cochran, a couple from Atlanta who recently moved to Fort Knox, Ky., on an Army assignment, were snapping pictures of one another in front of one of the clubhouse murals after upgrading their tickets from the infield.

“We want the entire (Derby) experience,” Scott Cochran said.

Marty Finley covers economic development, commercial and residential real estate, government and sports business.

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