The wrong side of the track

At aging Pimlico, enjoying the Preakness is no sure bet. But Churchill Downs is getting long in the tooth, too.

Postcard: Louisville

May 09, 1999|By Jon Morgan, | Jon Morgan,,Sun Staff

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It may be the scene of history's greatest racing, but in some areas the paint is peeling off in sheets. A mysterious liquid rains down, year after year, on fans in line at the betting windows beneath the grandstand. And the only food conveniently available is a flavorless wiener sold euphemistically as the "Big Frank."

Pimlico Race Course? No, Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.

We've grown used to tales of woe at Pimlico, an aging and unloved hulk in north Baltimore. Many of the Derby horses will arrive there this week, in preparation for Saturday's running of the second leg of racing's Triple Crown, the annual Preakness Stakes.

Fans are already beginning to wonder: What will go wrong this year? Another blackout? Flood? Locusts?

But while Churchill Downs, by contrast, has rightfully received plaudits for re-inventing itself over the past 15 years, in large part by upgrading its facilities, the venerable track is not without its flaws, either.

The high-ticket areas of the track, such as the Eclipse Room or Turf Club, are comparable to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. There is gourmet food, cheerful service and excellent racing. And the common areas of the track that even $2 bettors see on most days are clean and well-tended.

But for occasional fans like me, who fly into town year after year and make up the bulk of the 100,000-plus crowds each Derby Day, or for the Kentucky Oaks Stakes the day before, life isn't quite so posh.

And this despite strong profits that last year hit $10.5 million and helped fuel a buying binge of other tracks around the country.

My party had seats in the grandstand, sitting across from the final turn. To bet, we had to walk beneath the grandstands to a long, wooden structure with dozens of betting windows.

The set-up is understandable, but the area hasn't seen paint in years. There are birds nesting in the rafters, and rust streaking from bolts.

We've learned to cover our julep cups when crossing through here, because each year a steady drip of liquid -- one hopes it's just condensation -- rains down from the ceiling and creates a large puddle in the middle of the concourse. The same thing happens in the same place each year.

Even the washrooms are an afterthought. Instead of investing in some minimal plumbing and carpentry to build facilities for grandstand fans, the track rents every port-a-pot in a three-state area and lines them up like slot machines wherever they will fit.

Then, of course, there's the food. Concessionaire Aramark, the same people who serve up Boog's Barbecue at Camden Yards, take care of the patrons in Churchill Downs' millionaires' row. But the people with $55 grandstand seats have few options. There is a fast-food restaurant deep in the bowels of the track, but fighting through the crowds to get there, and then standing in line, can take up an hour or more.

Under the grandstands, there is sometimes a good barbecue sandwich available from a single concession stand. But at the other stands, it's the $3 Big Frank or nothing.

And even the track's much- acclaimed "Churchill Cheerful" training regime -- in which all full-time employees are required to take a customer-relations refresher course every year -- shows gaps on the big day. One roving vendor this year tried to charge me $6.50 for a julep, even though the button he was wearing established the price at an already outrageous $6.25.

That's not to say things in Louisville are as bad as at Pimlico, which has acquired a much-deserved reputation for neglect. But Churchill Downs is supposed to be setting the standard, not making "the most exciting two minutes in sports" a long, long day for fans.

Pub Date: 05/09/99

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