The classic drink at the Kentucky Derby? The mint julep. But the whiskey, water, sugar, and mint leaf cocktail isn’t the only attraction. The twin spires of Churchill Downs in Louisville, the garland of roses, and big hats and bold suits have drawn attendees such as Queen Elizabeth II, Michael Jordan, and Ronald Reagan to the 137-year-old horse race.
The Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, and upcoming Breeders’ Cup (Nov. 4-5) continue to attract large crowds, ranging from 80,000 to 165,000 people. But the rest of the sport may need help. According to a 2011 study from the Jockey Club — the breed registry for thoroughbred horses in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico — 57 percent of fans are wagering less, and the average gambler’s age gets older each year.
Leaders at Churchill Downs aren’t betting this trend will correct itself. Since 2009, the track has hosted Downs After Dark, a nighttime horseracing program mixed with world-renowned DJs held primarily on summer Fridays. The bash-like vibe is one reason Churchill now welcomes 25,000 to 30,000 partygoers and racing regulars to each evening race. The 2011 Downs After Dark held four night races from April to July, and a fifth one arrives on Nov. 18.
During my night at the racetrack, blue and turquoise lights throughout the entire 147-acre facility created an upscale nightclub atmosphere. In the Paddock where horses usually are saddled and displayed before a race, a DJ played remixes for a crowd of dancing, sweating, and smiling teenagers. In the clubhouse, women sporting bright dresses wore their best accessories on their arms: men dressed in jeans and button-down shirts.
In Millionaires Row, a pricier view of the races with a bar and buffet, employees handed out flashing, colorful rings to the ladies. “Here you go, girls,” said an employee as he handed rings to a group of women. “The only thing that sparkles as much as you tonight.” In a half-drunk manner, middle-aged men singing a cappella to The Jungle Book’s “The Bare Necessities” casually passed by. As the men poetically put it, “Forget about your worries and your strife.”