Morning Workout at Churchill Downs
The Barn and Backside Tour at Churchill Downs allows visitors a unique view of thoroughbred racing in Kentucky. (Photo: Andrea Nay)

By Andrea Nay

With gas and airline prices soaring, families frequently search for stay-cation opportunities.  At just three hours from the Miami Valley, Louisville makes a perfect weekend destination, and Churchill Downs is an ideal reason to make the trip.  Seeing the famed track outside of Derby Day can be an outstanding way to get up close and personal with its star attraction: the thoroughbreds.

Churchill’s spring season lasts six weeks, and you can still find live racing there through July 4.  It’s possible to pack an impressive array of equine-themed activities into a single day. If the trip is timed correctly, visitors can see two completely different sides of Louisville’s most famous venue. My group spent a morning dedicated to pure horsemanship with two organized tours, museum admission, and lunch at a backside diner. Our evening was star-studded, with eleven races under the lights on Opening Night.

 

Trip Diary

6:45 a.m. Arrived at Churchill Downs for the Barn & Backside Tour. The hour-plus tour includes a fence-side view of morning workouts. Over 1,000 horses are in residence at Churchill during the Spring Meet, and you’ll see a number of them out for their early trips around the track. Along with all the pretty ponies, we caught glimpses of star jockeys Calvin Borel, Kent Desormeaux, and Rosie Napravnik among others. The tour is shutterbug friendly, so bring your DSLR and lenses. I snapped the photo above just after dawn with a 300mm zoom. Note: A separate VIP Behind the Scenes Tour is also offered, but was not available during our Derby Week visit. This peek at the racing operation takes you into Milionnaire’s Row and jockey’s quarters, among other stops, and is rated highly by other tour-goers.

8:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. Made our way through the Kentucky Derby Museum. Arriving early was a good thing, as it seemed we had the entire museum to ourselves. Tour buses with larger crowds arrived later, so we were happy to catch a quiet look at the displays and activities before the museum got busy. The layout is kid friendly, with several hands-on virtual-reality games to keep children interested in the material. We especially liked the 360-degree HD presentation called “The Greatest Race.” This film alone is worth the Museum’s price of admission {$13 adults, $5 children 5-12; AAA and Military discounts are available}.
10:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. Viewed another side of the track via the Historic Walking Tour. This little trek, which is free with museum admission, involved an enthusiastic guide taking us onto the spectator-side to view additional workouts. While walking through the paddock, we heard entertaining stories about past and present Derbies and were also given tips for attending races throughout the Spring season, including where to sit for the best views.

11:00 a.m. – Broke for lunch, walking from the Museum to Wagner’s Pharamacy on Fourth Street behind the barns. As far as we can tell, this landmark which opened in 1922 is the only spot on the planet where you can pick up crutches, a prescription, racehorse liniment (which can also be used on humans), tack supplies, and a tuna melt with fries. The diner was featured in the recent movie Secretariat and its staff, who beat racing-buff Bobby Flay in an omelet throwdown, are akin to free therapy. I was called honey, darlin’, sweetie, and sugar in one brief lunch visit. If you plan to try their famous breakfast including divine biscuits, arrive before 10:00 a.m. We settled for lunch, where fresh summer tomatoes were served with our sandwiches.

12:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.  Naptime! After a busy morning, we returned to our hotel: the Comfort Inn on Dixie Highway in Shively. It isn’t the best neighborhood, but the brand-new property offers AAA discounts and is an easy drive from the track. It made a convenient base for exploring the track, museum, downtown riverfront, and University of Louisville and would also make an ideal stopover for UofL sporting events. Staff was attentive, the rooms were spotless, and we felt perfectly safe walking to nearby restaurants which include Roosters, Bob Evans, and Texas Roadhouse. For a more luxurious overnight, opt to stay at the historic Brown Hotel.

5:00 p.m. – Midnight After changing into cocktail attire, we were off to the races for Opening Night under the lights. Paddock entertainment included world-class DJ Clinton Sparks spinning before a record crowd of over 48,000. The evening offered the best people-watching I’ve encountered since the Champs Elysees in Paris. Spring for $20 Clubhouse box seats which include track admission, entrance to an expanded, air-conditioned food court, and access to a glass-windowed bar overlooking the paddock. Unlike arena sporting events, you’re not limited to your own seats. General admission areas include trackside seating where you can get a closer look at the action.  Be sure to take in some of the pre-race pomp and circumstance as the contenders parade in the paddock just before each race.

 

Hidden Gem Tips for Churchill Downs

When to Go — Live racing takes place Tuesday through Sunday from April 30 – July 4 and October 30 – November 27. For a quiet visit, choose a weekday without a stakes race. If you’d like a more vibrant experience, consider attending either the Paddock Concert Series (remaining date: June 10) or Downs After Dark (remaining dates: June 17 and 24, July 4, and November 18).

What to Eat — Kentucky Burgoo at the barbeque stand inside the Clubhouse-level food court.

What to Wear — Comfortable walking shoes for the Barns & Backside Tour, Kentucky Derby Museum, and daytime races.  Business casual or cocktail attire for Downs After Dark racing.

Where to Park — For the morning activities at the Kentucky Derby Museum, park in the free lot adjacent Gate One along Central Avenue. When returning for racing, enter at Gate Twelve on Longfield Avenue to enjoy free parking. Valet is available for $5. During high-attendance events, this lot will fill up by the start of the second race. Additional free parking with shuttles can be found just around the corner at Cardinal Stadium on the University of Louisville campus.

Side Trip — On the way home, we stretched our legs in the river village of Madison, Indiana. The entire downtown is dedicated a National Historic Landmark. Have Kentucky Pie ice cream (as good or better than the real Derby Pie) at Blue Bell, and stop to see the delightful Harley Adams at the fabric shop. Mr. Adams walked in 20 years ago to buy a sewing machine and ended up purchasing the entire business!