Balancing tradition with crowds, corporate progress


LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – Steve Sexton is the first to admit the traditions at Churchill Downs are part of what makes the Kentucky Derby so special.

The twin spires looming over the grandstands. Mint juleps served in their signature glasses. Derby hats the size of small cars tilted just so. The rose blanket awaiting the winner of arguably the world’s most famous horse race.

It’s why so many people – over 156,000 people last year – cram the grandstands and the infield ready to roar when the best 3-year-olds in the world make their way from the paddock to the post on the first Saturday in May.

“It’s really a slice of Americana,” said Sexton, president and CEO of Churchill Downs. “It is, to people who don’t know racing, racing.”

But the Derby is also a business. Derby Day is the track and the state’s marquee event. And as the Derby’s popularity has grown, track leaders have been forced to find a way to keep the race and Churchill Downs both timely and timeless, even if it means tweaking some of the traditions that helped make the event what it is.

The twin spires are still the track’s iconic symbols, but now they’re barely removed from the shadows of 80 luxury boxes, part of a $121 million renovation project completed last year.

And mint juleps remain the drink of choice, even if the race’s traditional concoction comes in a pre-made mix these days. “There is a challenge in continuing to maintain the tradition of the Derby,” Sexton said. “It’s a tricky and complex process.”

Now, even the name of North America’s oldest sporting event has changed. The 132nd running of the Derby will be presented by Yum! Brands, the parent company of restaurant chains like Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. The company’s logo will be featured on everything from the pony riders’ jackets to a sign over the starter’s gate to the saddlecloths the actual Derby horses wear during exercise sessions.

Yum! Brands isn’t the first company to be featured prominently at the track. But attaching the name of a company to one of the sport’s most sacred races could leave some purists to wonder if the “Kentucky” is being taken out of the Kentucky Derby.

The Derby “is one thing that makes us great as a state,” said Peggy Harp as she sat in the reserved section at Keeneland, a track an hour to the east in Lexington. “We older people like things the way they were.”

Connie Asbury, who owns a horse farm near Lexington, said she used to attend the Derby regularly, but doesn’t anymore. The crowds and the corporate influx have become too much.

“They’d keep making a lot of money even without that,” Asbury said. “It takes away a lot of the class. Signs of the times aren’t always good signs.”

Yum! spokesman Jonathan Blum understands the concern but he’s not worried about the company’s logo – a red word balloon with “Yum!” in white letters – ruining the Derby.

“We’ll be tasteful but highly visible,” Blum said. “We’re trying to be very sensitive to the history of Churchill Downs.”

And generate interest in Yum! businesses at the same time. The 150,000 people who will fill Churchill Downs on Derby Day is a small number comparison to the millions who will watch the race on television.

“We’re trying to reach millions of investors,” Blum said. “We’re creating an impression for all those who are not as fortunate to attend the event and sing My Old Kentucky Home’ in person but are singing along with the ones that are there.”

Figuring out a way to preserve tradition while exploring new sponsorship opportunities is a problem other tracks would love to have.

“We’d certainly embrace sponsorship,” said Lou Raffetto, president and chief operation officer of the Maryland Jockey Club. The club runs Pimlico, which is home of the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown. “Traditionalists have to realize that racing has changed and unfortunately, whether we like it or not, it’s become more of a business. Change is a tough word for some people on the track.”

Turfway Park CEO Bob Elliston grew up in Richmond, Ky., south of Lexington, and considers himself a traditionalist. At the same time, he also knows the pressure of a track to remain relevant and up-to-date in an age when there are so many other ways for consumers to spend their money.

“You can’t rest on your laurels, you can’t just rest on the fact that you have the greatest two minutes of sport,” Elliston said. “They’re looking to build on that. It would be easy to sit back and enjoy the notoriety, but they’re not.”

And maybe, even with all the signs and all the sponsors and all the progress, the Derby is still the Derby.

Dr. Bob Stout, a veterinarian for the state, was attending a convention in Louisville when he joined a large group who headed to Churchill Downs for a tour. Many of the conventioneers were making their first visit to the track.

“They were absolutely mesmerized,” Stout said. “They saw the track up close. They saw the spires. They saw the grandstand. They said being there made them connect to the track and the Derby more than just seeing it on TV. It’s still a special place.”