Photos courtesy of Terry Conway
Some things in life you don’t see coming. Just ask Bob and Valerie Peebles.
Over six decades of living, the Saint Helena, Calif., couple had never been to a horse race. The Kentucky Derby (G1) is the only race they watch on television. World travelers, last year the Peebles checked the Derby trip off their bucket list. They also carted home winnings from four $72 trifecta tickets bet on the Derby.
“A friend in Napa gave us a slip of paper: I’ll Have Another, Bodemeister, and Dullahan,” related Valerie Peebles. “I bet for myself and our friend then my husband made the bet twice not knowing I already did. We were absolutely stunned. We had no idea we needed to go to the IRS window to cash out. It took a while to get it sorted out, but we left with a check for $16,000. Beginner’s luck, I guess.”
Indeed. A retired industrial real estate magnate, Bob Peebles thoroughly researched packages online and settled on “Derby Experiences.” Looking for an ultra high-end adventure, Peebles bought the famed “Millionaire’s Row” package, the most sought-after location in the world of horse racing. It’s where the celebrities and powerhouse couples mingle (832 seats) while enjoying fast VIP access into Churchill Downs, gourmet buffets, a premium cash bar, private wagering facilities and an expansive balcony to view the day’s races.
“It could not have been better planned better or executed better,” Valerie remarked. “The Churchill people and security were friendly and made everything easy. The transportation was timely and efficient and we enjoyed our stay at the Selbach, a grand, old southern hotel. For us, it was like going back in time.
“I loved the men in dapper suits and elegant ladies with those oh-so-outlandish and fanciful hats. We saw quite a few celebrities and wound up at a table of 10 people who were lovely, a perfect match for us. Going out on the terrace, we felt truly engaged in the races. You could see the horses kicking up their heels getting ready to run. It was so exciting. Derby Experience is a first class operation. We couldn’t imagine doing the Derby and Oaks any other way.”
“Derby Experiences” is the Official Experience Package Provider to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Oaks (G1) and Kentucky Derby day races. It offers official made-to-order packages of tickets, on-site hospitality parties, VIP access, tourism attractions, amenities, and accommodations at the Galt House, the Brown, the Selbach or the Marriott for Derby week. It has sold out every year since 2008.
The program is a joint venture between Churchill Downs and North Carolina-based sporting event travel company QuintEvents, which also is an official provider of similar services for the Breeders’ Cup, the Super Bowl, Pro Bowl and other NFL events as well the NBA All-Star package.
QuintEvents will have 25 employees at the track, easily spotted in a “Derby Experience” uniform.
“The Derby can be kind of an intimidating event to attend and navigate if you’ve never been,” said Brian Learst, chief executive officer of QuintEvents. “We keep our clients informed, getting updates on everything from traffic patterns coming to the track and where to park to where the best parties are.
“It’s all about the customer, giving them a better product at a market price. And they are buying the package directly from Churchill, giving them a safer, easier way of purchasing.”
FANTASTIC CHURCHILL EXPERIENCE
Slideshow courtesy of Terry Conway
Corporate versus individual custom packages is a 50-50 split. Learst said he can’t reveal the total number of packages sold, but noted that there is roughly a 35-percent rollover of customers from the previous year. A variety of reserved seating package options include access to Millionaire’s Row ($8,399), Trophy Room ($5,949), Turf Club ($7,099), and the Derby Room ($5,499). The Clubhouse ($5,399) and Grandstand ($2,499) have several levels of packages with the aforementioned being the median price. The least expensive Derby option is a $40 general admission infield ticket.
Other optional package add-ons include tickets to the nighttime events, such as Taste of Derby (May 2), The Julep (a fundraiser held on Derby Eve) and the Winners’ Party (Saturday evening following the Kentucky Derby and featuring the winning jockey, trainer and ownership), held at the track in the Kentucky Derby Museum immediately after the race. Another worthwhile investment is a semi-private paddock tour, which you can do on either Oaks or Derby Days and see the competitors up close.
For earlier Louisville arrivals, additional experiences including horse farm and distillery tours, museum visits, golf and other amenities can be part of a customized set of turn-key arrangements at a variety of price levels.
Florida state representative and longtime racing fan Heather Fitzhagen fulfilled a lifetime dream attending the Derby in 2010. Fitzhagen, who grew up in horse-crazy Middleburg, Va., found her Turf Club package through Derby Experiences. She returned for more action in 2011 and 2012.
“Last year, I brought five friends along and they absolutely loved it,” remarked Fitzhagen, who represents Lee County around Fort Meyers. “We were checking out all the outfits. The celebrities spiced it up, a very festive scene. Our rep, Andrea, helped me craft the right tickets, hotel and horse farm visits. We got the whole big picture. I always felt if I needed something, we had an experienced person to turn to get a quick fix. Everything was spot-on.”
The Peebles won’t be coming in 2013, but they offer some advice for new Derby bucket list folks.
“Stop being concerned about the logistics and just go and do it,” Valerie Peebles insisted. “It’s so much fun. The Derby is an American original, so book your package the best possible way you can.”