Secrets, History, and Facts: Churchill Downs
There's more to this racetrack than the Kentucky Derby.
This article originally appeared on Travel + Leisure
Founded in 1875 by the grandson of explorer William Clark, Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., this racetrack is best known as the site of the annual Kentucky Derby. After witnessing the Epsom Derby in England, Clark was determined to transform Lexington's humble horse races into a spectacular, international event. He leased the land from two of his uncles, John and Henry Churchill, and named the track after them. A century after the first major stakes race, Churchill Downs was designated a National Historic Landmark. Today, the Kentucky Derby is the oldest continuously held major sporting event in the United States, attracting more than 160,000 people every year. But there's more to Churchill Downs than just thoroughbreds. After all, it's hosted the Kentucky State Fair and music festivals—and a Kentucky Derby Museum sits in the shadows of the Twin Spires. We've found eight little-known facts and surprising secrets about one of the world's most famous racetracks.
You can't buy a ticket for this section without an invite
Millionaires Row was the most exclusive and expensive seating section in Churchill Downs (a table for eight starts at $27,000) until the racetrack opened the Mansion in 2014. Many attendants don’t even know the Mansion exists because of its super secret, high-security location. You have to be invited to buy a single ticket into the Mansion, which will cost anywhere between $7,500 and $14,000 each. To enter, you must be accompanied by an assigned, personal concierge. A seat in the Mansion comes with plenty of perks, of course, like access to almost any area of Churchill Downs, a betting “advisor” who can help you win money, and a fully-stocked Chanel makeup counter in the ladies’ room.
Spectators drink a lot of mint juleps
Every year, about 120,000 mint juleps are consumed at Churchill Downs. The mix of Kentucky bourbon, simple syrup, crushed ice, powdered sugar, and mint is the If you’re lucky enough to snag a ticket into the Mansion, you can enjoy an exclusive mint julep doughnut.
Winning jockeys get a caricature portrait
A 36-foot mural painted by Pierre Bellocq, a French-American horse-racing cartoonist, decorates the clubhouse. The mural shows all 96 jockeys who won the Derby from 1875-2004. In 2008, a new mural was added to depict the winning trainers and jockeys each year. The bigger the caricature, the more times they’ve won. Peb comes to Churchill each year after the Derby to add the new winning trainer and jockey.
Turkeys are almost as popular as horses
Thanksgiving is the second busiest time of year at Churchill Downs, when nearly 7,000 descend upon the racetrack for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner—a feast requiring 3,000 pounds of turkey and no less than 16,000 dinner rolls. The tradition started in 1969, and now costs $55 to $110 per person.
Keep it casual—but not too casual
There are three levels of dress code for entering Churchill Downs: track casual, smart casual, and business casual. Where you sit, be it the Skye Terrace, the Derby Room, the Grand Foyer or the Roses Lounge, determines how polished your attire must be. Scrappy, torn clothing, frayed denim, halter tops, and cropped shirts are considered inappropriate for everyone.
Fascinators are a recent addition
At Churchill Downs, a woman’s choice of headwear depends on where her seat is. If she’s watching the race from the Mansion, her hat is probably elegant and couture, while general admissions viewers lean towards something eccentric and fun. But while these eye-catching fascinators seem synonymous with the Kentucky Derby, they didn't appear in force at Churchill Downs until the 1960s.
The iconic spires almost never happened
While they're perhaps the most instantly recognizable feature of Churchill Downs, the Twin Spires weren't part of the initial construction—and they almost never happened at all. When draftsman Joseph Dominic Baldez was enlisted to create the new grandstand, the Twin Spires weren't in his original plans. They were more of an afterthought.