Father’s Day at Churchill Downs

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1875.  That’s the year Churchill Downs opened, after a century of other horse races in the vicinity.  That type of legacy makes one appreciate Kentucky’s pride in its horse business.

Approaching the facility, you’re aware of the age of the place due to all of the homes in the neighborhoods that surround it.  Many are in great condition and others are being remodeled in the cyclical nature of urban restoration.  And when you arrive, Churchill Downs looks old, with a lot of exposed wood and exposed steel platforms.  The track’s trademark twin spires are almost hidden from view.   That’s not a “grand” presentation in any sense, and it’s more than a bit disappointing.  There should be an oak lined 1/2 mile drive or something...  but it’s still placed in a better neighborhood than, say, Augusta National.  So consider the place a well loved elderly survivor.  

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This isn’t to say that a visit here was a disappointment.  The facility is a registered Historic Landmark, and deservingly so.  It’s the kind of place that most people should be excited to see, particularly when horse racing season is open, as it was during my visit.

Inside the gates, there are a couple of artistic elements...

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... both of which are completely unnecessary and distracting to the allure of the rest of the place.   Once inside the gates and through a betting area, the architecture has a chance to breathe. 

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Yes, we got there early.  Prior to the race, the horses come out to the paddock where they can be observed by those who want to take a peek.

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The above is Jinx the Cat, the favorite in the first race, and also the name of my daughter’s cat.  After checking out the horses, we went back inside to make our bets.

We stayed on the main level, which was a “commoner” area.  Those paying more than the bargain $3 entry went upstairs to reserved seats, club levels, etc.  Generally speaking, those better dressed (sundresses, shirts with collars) – and there were many - headed that way as well.  There’s been many millions spent on renovations and expansions over the last decade, but I’d wager that most of it is “upstairs” – other than the massive video boards outside.   Still, I enjoyed the “old, familiar” presentation of the ground level.   (Except the smoking..., who has their insurance, anyway?  This is largely a wood frame structure).

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You research the race, make your picks, and pay “the man.”

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Our wallets massively lightened and wagers made several minutes prior to the post time, we headed not just for the outside seats, but track side by the finish line.

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Watching on TV is one thing, but as the horses come around the final turn, they’re still quite a ways off and take some time to arrive.  And pass quickly.

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My bet to win on Jinx was thwarted by his second place finish.  If it had been a hypothetical bet, no doubt Jinx would have won.  As I did, however, I really should have paid more attention to the name.

I was surprised by the number of horses in each race, usually 6 after scratches.  Through 6 races, I didn’t bet on a single horse that failed to finish in the top 3.  And with such narrow fields, the payback on Place and Show bets were minimal.  Disappointingly, had I made Trifecta box bets (instead of Exacta boxes), I would have won every race except one.  Doh!  Fairly easing pickings... you just have to bet them right.

As the only other horse track I’ve been to was Birmingham’s failed Turf Club back in the late 1980’s, I didn’t expect for there to be off-site wagering at one of the elite tracks.  But there is.  I figured it was something that was only done at tracks where they needed it to make ends meet.  Go figure.

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The day started slowly as far as attendance, but it was Father’s Day, and many came to the track with their families.  (Permanent seating capacity – 52,000).

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It was a good time and a great venue, and it makes me wish horse tracks were more accessible from Atlanta.  It’s always a great group activity, win, lose, or don’t bet.

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