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Thursday, May 2, 2013
The Mansion: the new VIP way to watch the Derby

Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The historic home of the Kentucky Derby has undergone facelifts, upgrades and minor touch-ups over the last decade that amount to the most significant changes at Churchill Downs since the twin spires were erected in the late 19th century.

There are new luxury boxes, the clubhouse has been replaced and stadium lighting was added so the track could hold night races.

This year's big renovation? A new VIP section known as The Mansion for Kentucky Derby fans willing to shell out several thousand dollars to watch the storied race. Yet with all the upgrades, the dirt track and twin spires remain.

"That historic part under the twin spires we didn't touch," said John Asher, a Churchill Downs vice president. "If we had, the fans would've showed up with torches, and we would've deserved it."

A total of about $150 million in upgrades began with a major construction project completed in 2005 that drastically changed the exterior look of the structure, with new additions rising nearly as high as the spires.

"It's just such an improved facility for almost anything you do," Asher said. He said the track was now better equipped to host business meetings, weddings and even the occasional funeral.

Churchill Downs spent about $3 million on the new 10,000-square-foot Mansion section, which was built inside the former media center and has some of the best views of the track and grandstand. It seats about 300 people, and tickets range from $7,000 to $12,500. It's only open on Kentucky Oaks and Derby day.

Track officials allowed media into the new space earlier this week. Smaller rooms and warm colors make it feel like an expensive home. There's a parlor, a bar and a library.

"You've got a great historical venue here. We wanted to bring it up to the modern times, with this venue specifically," said Ryan Jordan, Churchill Downs general manager. "There's a lot of combination with the past, the history and the tradition but yet you've got a modern look."

The Mansion is among several "firsts" for the track over the decade. Along with the night races that started in 2009, races will now also be held in September. In 2006, the track held its first large-scale concert with the Rolling Stones. Lead singer Mick Jagger noted the history of the setting during the show, pointing to a row of evergreens near the stage and remarking: "We've got the sacred hedge in front of us."

The Police played a show the following year and in 2009, the track held a music festival, though it was not profitable.

Asher said Churchill's facilities had been woefully outdated as recently as 2001, and hosting major events -- other than the "Run for the Roses" the first weekend of May -- were just not possible.

"When we first started seriously thinking about the renovations we undertook, we were looking at a facility that had 50,000 permanent seats and one kitchen," he said.

Those renovations increased overall space from 1 million to 1.4 million square feet. The six-level clubhouse was replaced and 79 luxury suites were added.

The track's original grandstand was left mostly untouched, other than refurbishing the spires.

Other smaller touch ups over the decade included this year's razing of the paddock pavilion, renovations to the Kentucky Derby Museum in 2009 and the addition of a fan favorite -- a statue of 2006 Derby winner Barbaro.

The statue sits atop a slab containing the popular horse's remains, just outside the track's main gate.

"This is my favorite spot on the whole track," said Shelly Lewis, who was sitting near the Barbaro statue earlier this week. She had placed the colt's favorite treat -- a peppermint -- in a spot where dozens of the candies had been left by other visitors.

In between races Tuesday, James Smith reflected on all the changes. Smith, 73, said in the 30 years he has been laying down wagers at Churchill Downs, his favorite addition has been night racing. It gives people who work during the day a chance to get to the track, he said.

"You can enjoy it with your family, eating your hot dog, drinking your cold beer, maybe trying your luck one or two chances -- however your budget is," he said.

There have been some detractors, including longtime track patrons.

"They would say, `I just don't know why you had to it," Asher said. "And then the elevator doors would open and there was that gleaming new area ... and they went, `Oh, now I see what you're talking about."

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AP freelancer Josh Abner contributed to this report.

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