And They're Off!
Louisville Conference Promotion Coordinator
Louisville, Kentucky, the site of the 2006 USITT Conference & Stage Expo, is the home of the Kentucky Derby, the most famous horse race in the world.
On the first Saturday in May, the excitement and pageantry at Churchill Downs has no rival. In the exclusive Skye Terrace high above the finish line, wealthy race enthusiasts from around the world mingle with celebrities, politicians, and business executives. Below them in boxes and grandstands, and crowding the infield, are up to 150,000 spectators. Elegant and outlandish hats clamor for attention, and abundant mint juleps provide just the right amount of Southern sweetness.
Founded in 1875 by Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of the explorer William Clark, the Kentucky Derby is one of the first races in America to use the French pari-mutuel betting machines. This unique system, invented by Pierre Oller around 1870, pools the money of everyone betting on a race and, after deductions for track expenses and taxes, divides it among the winning ticket holders. Payoff odds are determined by the bettors - as more people bet on a horse, its odds go down. Large trackside tote boards, and their electronic surrogates hanging everywhere, post the odds and adjust them minute by minute as people place their bets. When the bell sounds and the horses lunge out of their gates, all betting stops.
While conference-goers won't be able to experience the thrill of thundering hooves (the Spring Meet begins on April 30), the Derby Museum at Churchill Downs, which is open from March through November, offers the next best thing - historical exhibits, interactive displays, walking tours of the Backside, and a 360-degree high-definition video of the "Run for the Roses."
The Derby Museum recently was expanded and now features some nifty high-tech, interactive, computerized displays and video graphics. Kids, and kids-at-heart, can climb up on fiberglass horses and ride (no sitting down, please) the two minutes from starting gate to finish line while watching a video simulation of an actual race. Riders can then stroll over to the "Winner's Stable" exhibit which examines the careers of six Derby winners and includes audio interviews with jockeys, trainers, and owners. Since 1924 the winning owner has received a gold trophy, believed to be the only solid gold trophy given annually in an American sporting event. Another Derby tradition, dating back to 1939, is a commemorative mint julep glass decorated with each year's Derby logo and a list of all the past winning horses. These inexpensive glass tumblers sold in gas stations and supermarkets throughout Louisville, as well as in the souvenir shop at Churchill Downs, are popular collectibles. The museum showcases its complete collection.
The most impressive exhibit in the Derby Museum is "The Greatest Race." This high-definition video is shown on a special 360-degee screen while viewers, sitting or standing in the middle of the room, are immersed in the sights and sounds of Derby Day. They become part of the crowd, and when the race begins, everyone is swept up in the thunder of hooves, the flying dirt, the sweat, and the incredible energy produced by horses, riders, and screaming fans. It's almost as good as being there.
Horse lovers will want to get up early to be at the track for the morning workout. Tours of the stable areas (a.k.a. the Backside) and the infield start at 7 a.m. and run every subsequent hour and a half until 1 p.m. The Backside gets busy before dawn, so if the sight of steamy horse breath and the metronomic purr-upt, purr-upt beat of a chestnut thoroughbred cantering by almost close enough to touch takes your breath away, call the Derby Museum as soon as you get to town and arrange for a 7 a.m. Backside tour.
For those averse to early rising, or who are more interested in history, culture and charm, walking tours of the newly renovated Churchill Downs Grandstand, the Finish Line, and the Winner's Circle are also available. They start at a civilized 9:30 a.m. The last tour starts at 4:15 p.m.
Don't leave Churchill Downs without a quick trip through the Derby Museum gift shop. All kinds of equine-related mementos are available, from swivel sticks and bobble-head jockeys to tee-shirts, to books and note cards, to collectible art and jewelry.
For more information, contact the Kentucky Derby Museum at 502-637-7097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Churchill Downs is not far from the site of USITT's Conference & Stage Expo. Map/David Rodger
The excitement of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs is just one of the many events which draw visitors to Louisville, Kentucky. Plan now to be part of USITT's 2006 Annual Conference & Stage Expo March 29 to April 1 in Louisville.
Photo/Dan Dry, courtesy Greater Lousiville Convention & Visitors Bureau.