For the second time in six weeks, I found myself at Churchill Downs, taking pictures of a sign being changed on Thursday afternoon.
The maneuver was pretty simple. It happens every year. Churchill Downs adjusts its sign between the iconic Twin Spires to reflect the year and the running of the Kentucky Derby, in this case, 2022, and 148th running.
Nothing dramatic, yet here we are, a handful of reporters, TV stations, maybe 50 Churchill Downs employees, staring up at Churchill employee Todd Herl as he rises on his cherry-picker, and installs the new numbers.
In February, I did the same thing in the paddock as Herl removed the name of disqualified colt Medina Spirit and replaced it with Mandaloun, the official winner of Kentucky Derby 147.
Why do we care about this stuff? Why are we grown people craning our necks to watch a simple maintenance procedure?
There are a couple of reasons. First, because it’s another sign that the Kentucky Derby is growing bigger in the window. The time is drawing near. And for many of us in these parts, that’s a stirring thing.
In New York City, they have the ball dropping on New Year’s Eve. In Louisville, we have this. It’s a lot more pleasant, and a lot less crowded.
I don’t know when it became a media event. Probably when Instagram became a thing.
I don’t even know when that sign between the Spires first went up, though I believe it to have been 1938 or 1939, based on my own research. I sent Churchill Downs senior director of communications and media services Darren Rogers a late-night email to ask. Occupational hazard for him.
The second reason we watch has to do with history, I suspect.
Whenever the sign went up, there was probably somebody saying, “What a shame to mar those beautiful Spires with that sign.”
I used to be in that camp, shaking my head that the Spires have receded as Churchill Downs’ physical blueprint has expanded. But the older I get, the more I understand that history is a river, not a snapshot. Nothing stays the same.
When Churchill Downs opened, the clubhouse was on the side of the track where the stables now sit. When they moved it to the other side, somebody probably didn’t like it. When Joseph Dominic Baldez, a 24-year-old draftsman from Louisville, added the Spires to his original design for a new grandstand in 1895, I promise you somebody thought they were too much. Or not right.
Yet they endure. More than anything else Baldez did in life, he was the first to attest. The architect of Louisville’s most iconic landmark attended lots of races at Churchill Downs. But he didn’t come on Derby day. He was afraid the overflow crowds would collapse the grandstand. I get that.
Matt Winn, the legendary general manager and later president of Churchill Downs, once likened the track’s evolution in design and facilities to that of a “patchwork quilt.” It was kind of made up as time went along. That, too, is part of Churchill’s history, though the current ownership is far more cognizant of blending the old and the new.
On Thursday, Rogers talked about more changes at the track. A new turf course, which will open Derby week, for instance.
“It was a little like having an iPhone 2.0,” he said. “Now we’re upgraded to the Apple 12.”
Churchill also put $45 million into renovating an older stretch of its grandstand, from Section 120 to 123, into a new “Homestretch Club.”
“Parts of that facility are probably well over 100 years old, and they hadn’t been touched,” Rogers said. “So we removed the old bleacher seats. It’s at the eighth pole. And we’ve created a new product environment, called the Homestretch Club, that offers three exceptional areas of seating, one of which, there’s some lounge seating, right on the rail, that are horseshoe shaped, so it’s very much like VIP-bottle-service-at-a-club-meets-floor-seats-at-an-NBA-game. There’s also 2,600 tip-up, stadium-style seats that are cushioned. And then we have about 60 terraced dining tables that will be in there. And underneath and behind all that, we’ve got about 18,000 square feet of newly renovated space, including, we’re going to have Kentucky’s largest bar. It’s a 90-foot-95-foot bar that extends throughout the hospitality area. So it’s going to be a great new space. They’re finishing construction on it now. . . . We respect the history, but yet we’re still moving forward with modern amenities.”
Down in the first turn, there’s a $90 million project that will be ready in 2023. The paddock will get a redesign for 2024. And on and on.
I remember when we lost the press box at Churchill Downs. It was tough blow for many, myself included. The press box was replaced with “The Mansion,” a high-roller space for the richest of the rich. A spot for pure luxury. I thought of all the writers who had occupied the press box space at Churchill, whether the renovated press box or the old one, and all the history they represented — Red Smith, Jim Murray, Dan Jenkins, Bill Nack, Joe Hirsch and so many others. But then again, Matt Winn himself lived in a swanky 6-room apartment over the Churchill clubhouse for some time, so maybe it wasn’t exactly a slap at the track’s history to do that.
Quick confession: I still look at those light poles and wish they weren’t in the way.
But nothing stands still. Nothing stays in the dark. There’s no point mourning change. Those numbers on the sign, they only move forward, not back. Like it or not.
And for those who miss the old things, the old ways, the old structures, at least Derby Day is coming.
POSTSCRIPT: Rogers, after a run through archival photos at Churchill Downs, has settled the question. The grandstand sign first appeared in 1939, when Johnstown won the Derby and paid $3.20 to win, the lowest win payout in 34 years. Below, a couple of photos forwarded along by Rogers. First, the grandstand without the sign in 1938, followed by a photo with the sign present a year later.