A second year of renovations at Churchill Downs Racetrack puts the focus on First Turn Spectators
By   –  Reporter, Louisville Business First

It wasn’t too long after Rich Strike shocked spectators as the first thoroughbred to cross the finish line at the 148th Kentucky Derby last year that construction crews got back to work on the next set of renovations at Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville.

“The last couple projects we’ve been working — like this job — we’ve done a big piece of the project. We stop. Have Derby. And then we keep going with the project,” said John Hinshaw, president of Calhoun Construction.

Louisville-based Calhoun Construction has had hundreds of crew members working to get the track ready for this year’s Kentucky Derby, set for Saturday, May 6. Churchill Downs Racetrack is undergoing a multimillion dollar, multiyear renovation project anticipated to be fully complete by 2024.

Having finished the first phase last year, Mike Anderson, president of Churchill Downs Racetrack, said there will be some noticeable differences at the track this year. That includes new seating, expanded food offerings and even areas that expand past the gates.

Last May, Churchill Downs welcomed guests back to its full capacity for the first time since 2019, seeing nearly 150,000 fans. Though the company doesn’t comment on expected attendance numbers, Anderson said ticket sales are tracking favorably with past years.

A project with a strict schedule like this requires forward-thinking and skilled workers. Hinshaw said it’s these kinds of projects, where workers are adding finishing touches to the last minute, where Calhoun Construction excels.

“Calhoun loves sports entertainment projects that have a hard delivery date,” Hinshaw said. “We’ll be out there working with Churchill all the way up until Derby.”

One group that will be in attendance is the crews at Calhoun Construction. Hinshaw said the workers will get to enjoy the fruit of their labor at the 149th Kentucky Derby.

A new look on the first turn

Like last year, fans will be met with a different track than they’ve seen in the past.

The $90 million First Turn Experience took the place of about 3,400 temporary seats that have occupied the track for approximately 15 years.

“The First Turn Experience is a permanent building that we’ve never had before,” Anderson said. “Previously, it was just a flat concrete pad that we erected a temporary structure that had a couple of thousand seats in it.”

The new structure will have 5,200 outdoor seats, as well as 2,000 seats in a 50,000-square-foot club space. The area gets its name from its location: guests in those seats will get a clear view of the horses right as they make the first turn around the track.

The club space will have a bar in the center with screens wrapping around the room. Anderson said the technology is state-of-the-art, giving guests visibility to the screen no matter where they are in the clubhouse.

“It’s just generally a wide-open space that will be perfect for the Derby atmosphere,” Anderson said. “Also, the rest of the year, we can utilize it as a conference area so we can have large scale conference space for those other 360 days a year.”

One request Anderson and the team at the racetrack have received in the past is covered seating on those occasional rainy Derby days. The First Turn Experience features a cantilever roof so even those outdoor seats will have some cover.

Just like coverings, Anderson said the track has received feedback on better visibility as well.

“Every year we listened to what our customers comments are,” Anderson said. “All of our projects that we invest money in today is a result of those comments that we received from our customers, so visibility is one of them.”

Tickets for the First Turn Experience are nearly sold out, Anderson said. Prices vary, but as of a Wednesday, April 26, check, tickets on the resale aftermarket for this area were ranging between $900 and $1,400 a seat.

Last year, Churchill Downs Racetrack debuted the $45 million Homestretch Club. It transformed a former bleacher section along the final stretch of the course into an all-inclusive premium seating and lounge area.

Prepping the paddock

The next (and largest) phase of the renovation is the $200 million redesign of the paddock, which will be complete next year at the 150th Kentucky Derby.

Although we’re still a year away from seeing the finished product, work has begun at the paddock, which will be a noticeable change to visitors.

The paddock project is the single largest project Calhoun Construction is working on now. With the foundations in place, the firm will begin putting up the structural steel as soon as this year’s Derby is over.

Hinshaw said there has been some unexpected challenges in this project, mainly due to the paddock being the oldest part of Churchill Downs Racetrack. Some of the utilities were over 100 years old, so switching those out for new systems has been a feat.

Several buildings in the area have been demolished as well, revealing the original Jockey Club, built in 1825.

Churchill Downs previously announced the paddock redesign will include 12,000 square feet of guest space compared to the former 5,000 square feet, increasing the capacity inside the paddock from 1,000 to 2,400 people.

Though the guest area of the paddock project will not be finished this year, the section of the paddock for the horses has been completed. Anderson said that part of the redesign included rotating the paddock by 90 degrees, increasing the size and lowering the area seven feet in the ground for better visibility.

Construction crews finished an addition on the Jockey Club suites as well, which now offers outdoor seating on the fifth-floor balcony connected to the Triple Crown ballroom. The last upgrade completed this year is in one of the third-floor boxes, section 318 and 319.

“We took out the last two rows, we opened up the structure and put in some windows,” Anderson said. “The new seats that we’ve created — what we call the Spires Terrace — will actually have a table where you can look inside the paddock, turn your head and look and see the racetrack. You can have spectacular views of the paddock and the racetrack all at your table.”

Embracing the change

All these changes to the track are bringing about a new way of operating at the Kentucky Derby.

During the race with restricted attendance in 2021, the racetrack tried out a new ticket package. The price of a seat included concessions and drinks. Anderson said the purpose of that was to limit contact and touch points during the pandemic.

Guests have loved the change.

“We received extremely positive feedback after that 2021 Derby, saying ‘best Derby ever’ and ‘I didn’t have to wait in lines,’” Anderson said. “We continued that into last year, into 2022, and again received rave reviews.”

The racetrack also is expanding the number of pickup spots for food and beverages.

Darren Rogers, senior director, media services for Churchill Downs, said that was something they heard from last year’s attendees.

Not only expanding offerings, but Rogers said the track is expanding its footprint past the gates. Churchill Downs has created a Paddock Plaza experience, which will be located in the parking lot.

“There’ll be some lounge areas out there, very much like you’d see if you went to the Super Bowl,” Rogers said.

Additional room doesn’t necessarily mean higher attendance at the race. Churchill Downs is focusing on creating a more quality experience for guests while not necessarily growing attendance numbers.

“The days of the 170,000 people attending the Derby are being limited by us by design … under the current footprint of our acreage in the facility” Rogers said.

“Because we offer the all-inclusive food and beverage with a reserved seat, we now limit the general admission to infield only … that’s going to put you in the neighborhood of 150,000.”