As the home of the Kentucky Derby, Louisville’s Churchill Downs teems with historical significance. Yet a trip to the gargantuan, twin-spired track doesn’t evoke the misty-eyed nostalgia of a place like Saratoga; no venue which can accommodate 160,000 spectators on a single day, as Churchill does on the first Saturday of each May, is ever going to fit neatly on a postcard.
“Bigger, brighter, louder, more” is a mantra that doesn’t suit most racetracks, but it sure suits Churchill, which installed a 15,000 square-foot “Big Board” Jumbotron at a cost of $12 million, so that no passing motorist—to say nothing of the horseplayers inside—will miss the sight of a single race. And when a Derby co-owner complained about Churchill’s lack of hospitality, the track came up with a very Churchillian solution: the $4.2 million addition of 20 trackside owner’s suites, with no perk spared.
Some 70 miles to the east of Churchill sits Lexington’s limestone jewel of a racetrack, Keeneland, which perfectly embodies the sport’s bucolic, buttoned-down image. Conversely, Churchill—volcanic as Vegas, gnarly as NASCAR, decadent as the Dallas Cowboys—is a more realistic reflection of big-time American athletics at large, and a towering reminder that, in some quarters, horse racing is still very much a major sport.
Kentucky Derby day is simply one of the biggest, most boisterous sporting events in the world. Hollywood stars jet in and juice up until their knees buckle, as do a whole lot of civilians in gloriously gaudy getups. Louisville appears ready to burst at its seams, just as 20 of the world’s most talented 3-year-old horses are loaded into an overcrowded starting gate (two, technically). When Hunter S. Thompson headlined his 1970 article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” it marked a rare departure from hyperbole. (The 16-1 shot Dust Commander, mentioned but once in Thompson’s woozy opus, won that year.)
Even non-sports fans should experience the Derby in person at least once. But Oaks day—when the female equivalent of the Derby is run—is arguably a better experience for those more interested in wagering than keeping their bow ties on straight. The infield, for one, isn’t impenetrable, and the betting lines are a bit shorter. As the city lies pregnant with anticipation, plenty of fleet fillies make a Friday trip to the track well worth it.
Churchill, its capacity unrivaled, frequently plays host to the Breeders’ Cup, and also boasts a slew of top-flight stakes races during its staggered, four-month schedule (end of April through June, September, and a late fall meet that runs from the end of October through the end of November). The Clark Handicap, which is run in late November, often factors into Eclipse Award voting, and the Kentucky Jockey Club, run the same weekend, is a key Derby prep race for promising 2-year-olds.
As for the confines, they won’t confine you. One could head to Churchill on a slow Wednesday, hide in a supply closet near Millionaire’s Row, and probably not get discovered until Sunday. Low-rollers can get a good mint julep in the Silks Lounge, grab $1 beers on Fan Appreciation Day, plop down in a cheap seat around the first turn, and—if they’re able to befriend a member—gorge on a delectable weekend Turf Club buffet.
Where to Eat
Like any city, Louisville has its share of high-end, downtown steakhouses. Skip them and go to Pat’s Steakhouse on Brownsboro Road instead. A double-decker restaurant with an Irish motif and multiple barrooms and private nooks, Pat’s is known for its green-jacketed waitstaff, blue cheese dressing, and generous cuts of meat (try the 24-ounce Porterhouse T-Bone).
As a hotbed of barbecue, Kentucky doesn’t get the notoriety afforded other southern states. But Frankfort Avenue Beer Depot (beer depots are to Louisville as icehouses are to San Antonio) will silence any naysayers. With a pair of giant black smokers positioned in front of the tavern, which brims with slapped-together charm and television sets tuned to sports, FABD’s “Lou-A-Vul”-style brisket is sensational, but it’s the white bean soup—peppered with scraps of meat—that separates this place from the pack.
Where to Drink
Heading east out of downtown, parallel to the Ohio River, Louisville feels like a lot of hardscrabble heartland cities, with a mix of old brick warehouses and multi-family flats—some occupied, some not. At the end of Liberty Street, one intersection before a train trestle, is Baxter Avenue.
Drive down Baxter and you'll find a slew of Irish pubs, as well as a cozy dive called the Outlook Inn, whose name is dwarfed by the words “Falls City” (a longtime local brew) on a sign outside. Around the time you pass a popular pizza parlor named Wick’s, Baxter turns into Bardstown Road, where two outstanding beer joints—the Holy Grale and the Highlands Taproom—offer comfortable outdoor seating and a plethora of geeky drafts. Local businesses welcome a diverse clientele, and there are options for patrons with a wide spectrum of interests. All in all, it’s the sort of strip that makes you want to drink on Sunday, in a region where imbibing on the Lord’s Day isn’t the easiest chore.
Downtown, Third Street Dive stays open until 4 a.m. every night, and features standup comedy and live music of all stripes. For $5, you can get a shot of Jim Beam with a High Life back, and the dark, punk bar’s name doubles as a play on the corporate-feeling 4th Street Live cluster of establishments a block away. Ironically, after midnight, many of the bar’s patrons will be servers who’ve just been tipped out at Howl at the Moon or the Hard Rock.
Where to Stay
The Seelbach and The Brown Hotel are two regal downtown hotels that will enhance any trip to Churchill. But Galt House, while it lacks the former two properties’ aesthetic charm, boasts the strongest ties to the track, as well as unbeatable views of the Ohio River. Its upper-floor RIVUE Restaurant Lounge will make you feel as though you’re drinking on top of the world (or at least Kentucky), and the Jockey Silks Bourbon Bar features no fewer than 150 varieties of local bourbon, lest you have any lingering doubt as to where the elixir’s nucleus lies.
Churchill Downs is the home track of jockey Calvin Borel, the Cajun-bred Derby darling who’s one of the sport’s most magnetic human participants. While he always commands respect in the stirrups, Corey Lanerie, Shaun Bridgmohan, Brian Hernandez Jr., Florent Geroux, and Julien Leparoux have been duking it out for the track’s riding titles of late, and Robby Albarado remains a force to be reckoned with. Derby week and other big races bring in top jocks from across the country.
As at Keeneland, whenever owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey have a horse entered in a race, it’s sure to merit serious consideration, and Churchill draws entries from just about every big-name trainer you can think of. But meet-to-meet, Dale Romans, Steve Asmussen, Brad Cox, and Mike Maker are likely to saddle their fair share of winners.
Old Louisville, which sits directly between downtown and Churchill Downs, is America’s largest historical Victorian neighborhood, the perfect place to take a stroll and clear your head on a weekend morning before you fill it with a veritable gumbo of equine statistics. A short distance to the south is the University of Louisville, and just beyond that is Churchill Downs. In other words, skip the highways and take in Louisville at curb level to enrich your trip to the track.