Give people more than they expect and do it cheerfully

Churchill Downs

 

Wimbledon, Indianapolis Raceway, Wrigley Field, Churchill Downs. Places like this, where epic sporting events happen, have their own kind of mystique. When you are there you can't believe you are really there. Is this really where Martina Navritilova won her nine Wimbledon singles titles? Or the 100th Indianapolis 500 took place? 

 

 

Churchill Downs is like that too. You feel a kind of hush come over yourself when you approach the racetrack. You are aware of so much history, so many huge moments in Thoroughbred racing that happened here. Plus, like Wimbledon or Wrigley or the Indy 500, Churchill Downs has been part of the sports scene for decades. In fact, the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks have been run for 147 consecutive years. Think about that. When the first Kentucky Derby was run, Ulysses S. Grant was president, the Civil War had ended only a decade earlier, women couldn't vote, and people traveled by horse and buggy, not car.

The funny thing about embodying that kind of history is that when you go to the physical location, you expect it to be intimidating the way something like a palace or church will be. You expect that the approach to the storied structure would be vast and open, perhaps landscaped with imposing trees, or at least a big green lawn. But since Churchill Downs was first built, the city of Louisville, KY, has grown up around it. The track is surrounded by small, working-class homes, fast food restaurants and small businesses catering to the community. In other words, nothing fancy. It's not where ladies go to buy big, fancy hats, or where people go to sit in fancy restaurants. Come to think of it, however, the setting does, perhaps, reflect the "backside" life of the track — of the grooms and jockeys and hot walkers — rather than the glossy lives of the spectators.

It surprised me, the first time I went, but now I really like the setting of Churchill Downs. I'm hoping to go again this spring, when my book about Kentucky Oaks winner Rachel Alexandra (Alexandra the Great: The Record-Breaking Filly Who Ruled the Racetrack, published by Chicago Review Presscomes out...

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