By Marty Finley
– Reporter, Louisville Business First

Apr 26, 2018, 2:55pm EDT
Updated 31 minutes ago

Churchill Downs Racetrack has been making changes to its physical footprint for years, but this year’s stable of capital projects will take some getting used to.

Racetrack officials provided the first look Thursday morning of Churchill’s new $37 million Starting Gate Suites and its new Paddock Gate main entrance and pedestrian plaza, which has expanded the paddock entrance by about 100,000 square feet, racetrack general manager Ryan Jordan said.

The Paddock Gate consolidates Gates 1 and 17 into one centralized main entrance with added sidewalk space.

The expanded pedestrian plaza is near the new entrance gate, between retooled parking lots, and it features park benches and new lighting and landscaping. The track also has added an expanded bus terminal and a temporary pedestrian crosswalk that will direct guests above the shuttle-bus lane as they approach the track during Derby week.

The new entrance layout is the first phase of a $32 million plan that includes significant parking reconfigurations, new stormwater retention basins and other rain-capturing features, and the planting of about 900 trees. The second phase will be primarily focused on parking, tree planting and retention features along Longfield Avenue near the track’s backside.

Churchill has not expanded its number of available parking spaces, which stands at more than 4,500. The cost of the $32 million project has been broken equally between the two phases, and Jordan said work will be finished in time for the Breeders’ Cup Championships in early November.

The project also has created a larger bus terminal and loading area to feed shuttles in and out of the track more quickly. Central Avenue traffic will be restricted to shuttle buses between Crittenden Drive and Taylor Boulevard during the busiest parts of Derby week, and the track partnered with Kentucky Venues to offer off-site satellite parking at the Kentucky Exposition Center as part of a bundled package with Derby seats.

On-site parking at the track during Derby week — dropoffs included — is strictly reserved and will require special permits for entry. Designed dropoff zones for Uber, Lyft and taxi services can be found at the Kentucky Derby’s parking parking website.

Pedestrian crosswalks will be set up at Third and Ninth streets, and I wrote about many of the parking and travel changes here.

Starting Gate Suites

The Starting Gates Suites project is designed to seamlessly blend into Churchill’s existing luxury seating and adds 1,800 new seats to the track. The new seating includes a mix of 32 luxury suites and dining room seating spread across more than 75,000 square feet on three floors.

The suites cost about $135,000 each to reserve and were sold out before the project was constructed, Churchill Downs Racetrack president Kevin Flanery said.

“They had to trust they would be as beautiful as they are,” Flanery said of the suite holders, none of whom were identified.

The individual suites can comfortably accommodate about 30 people and are equipped with lounge seating, bar-style tables, large flat-screen televisions and kitchenettes. And like other luxury suites at the track, they feature outdoor terraces with great views of the track and the starting gate.

The dining rooms, meanwhile, have upscale lighting and furnishings, numerous televisions and are equipped to offer a chef’s table and buffet-style meals during racing events.

Flanery said it is important to marry modern flourishes with the Derby’s historic heritage. That was accomplished this year by the arrangement of vintage photographs of Derby-winning horses along the walls of the suites.

These two projects together represent nearly $70 million in new improvements, following last year’s $16 million enhancement of the second-floor clubhouse, which is between the paddock and the racetrack. That project modernized about 95,000 square feet in the clubhouse to improve circulation and service.

By the end of 2018, Churchill Downs’ capital investments at the racetrack will have grown to more than $190 million in the past eight years.

Flanery said Churchill continues spending to improve the customer experience and ensure that the racetrack stays current and appropriately in tune with the times: “We know we have to keep things fresh.”

Churchill Downs Racetrack is owned by Louisville-based Churchill Downs Inc. (NASDAQ: CHDN). The company’s namesake racetrack is part of a larger series of casino and racetrack holdings.