Churchill Downs gets $121M makeover

Owner aims to turn track into all-season hub for entertainment, business

Kentucky Derby notebook

Horse Racing

April 27, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - As racing fans in Maryland wait for the promised remodeling of Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness, visitors to the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs will find the sprawling track undergoing a $121 million renovation.

Nearly all of the grandstand and clubhouse is being rebuilt - save for the twin spires and the section underneath.

The idea is to turn the seasonal track into a year-round "entertainment and business facility" with skyboxes, luxury suites, restaurants and bars, as well as upgrade the racing experience with a food court, simulcast arena, seating areas, gift shop and rooms for high rollers, said John Asher, a Churchill vice president.

The management of Churchill Downs, a public company, has lobbied for slot machines but has been rebuffed by the state's lawmakers. That hasn't stopped it from undertaking major improvements.

Churchill also owns Arlington Park, Calder Race Course, Ellis Park, Hollywood Park, Hoosier Park and Kentucky Downs. None of those tracks has slots.

"This is our best shot to remain viable and competitive and bring new fans to the racetrack," Asher said.

He said Churchill Downs, which opened in 1875, needed upgrades to stay competitive with glitzy new stadiums and sports facilities in Kentucky and surrounding states.

"After getting used to those other state-of-the-art facilities, we felt the level of expectation of our customers had risen," Asher said. "We were looking more than a little tired and old."

Churchill tried to buy the Maryland Jockey Club, but lost out to Magna Entertainment Corp., which bought a controlling interest in 2002.

Jockeys' cases continue

Yesterday in Louisville, U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II continued until today the hearing on two lawsuits filed by jockeys seeking to overturn a Kentucky rule against wearing advertisements or a Jockeys' Guild patch on their clothing.

The jockeys hope for a favorable ruling this week so they can complete endorsement deals for the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown series. Maryland has no rule against jockeys wearing advertising on their clothing.

Jerry Bailey was the jockeys' chief spokesman. He flew to Kentucky from Florida, where his father was undergoing open-heart surgery, said Ronald G. Sheffer, one of the jockeys' lawyers.

"It's an important issue for them," Sheffer said. "It means a minimum of $25,000 to $30,000 for the Derby and maybe even six figures for a contract through the Triple Crown."

He said the judge is expected to hear closing arguments this morning and issue a ruling today or tomorrow.

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