Q&A with Director Cate Johnson as Racing Hall of Fame Prepares for Sept. 5 Reopening

Cate Johnson, director of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. (Courtesy of Cate Johnson )

It takes thousands of people to breed, raise, sell, train, and transform horses into racehorses. But barely 1% of the people involved in the process make it into the Hall of Fame.

The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame is set to reopen on Sept. 5 – Kentucky Derby day – and visitors will be treated to a new 16-minute 4D film documenting the paths people in the industry have taken to achieve success, among other interactive educational components that are part of the Museum’s enhanced Hall of Fame experience.

Museum Director Cate Johnson fully understands the hard work it takes to run a racing operation. She joined the museum in 2016 after working eight years for former trainer-turned jockey agent Kiaran McLaughlin. On top of her busy summer overseeing the enhanced Hall of Fame come to fruition, she has been waking up at 4 a.m. most weekdays to hotwalk for trainer Todd Pletcher.

America's Best Racing’s Annise Montplaisir caught up with Johnson to discuss what visitors can expect when they return to the Museum.

What new components can visitors expect when they next visit the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame?

The renovation focused on the Race Day Gallery and the Hall of Fame, both of which were totally transformed.

The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. (Wikimedia Commons)

Describe what viewers will see in the Race Day Gallery.

With the Race Day Gallery, we wanted everyone to feel – even if they’ve never been to a racetrack – what they would be able to experience at a racetrack in North America. So what we did was create three sections in the Race Day Gallery: the track, the paddock, and the winner’s circle. In each of those we created a slideshow, showing racetrack paddocks in the United States, as well as winner’s circle photos and racetrack photos.

Around the curved glass window that faces the Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Courtyard, we’re featuring 18 racetracks, 15 of which are still active and three historic. There’s information, photos, as well as curatorial items from our collection programs that are featured in a shadow box above the panels.

And on that curved glass, [artist] Greg Montgomery created a life-sized rendering of horses running on a racetrack … it’s an amazing piece of artwork.

What kinds of artifacts can visitors expect to see?

The art and the artifacts out of the collection in the paddock section are unbelievable. There’s a bugle, a horse shoe section, a lot of tack from Hall of Fame jockeys, saddles, and halters from Hall of Fame horses. These items for the Race Day Gallery all came out of the vault, which is amazing.

How can people interact with elements of the new Race Day Gallery?

Also in the Race Day Gallery, you can get your picture taken in the “Winner’s Circle,” and that is a replica of Saratoga Race Course’s winner’s circle… and the Backstretch Employee Service Team will have a panel as well [for people to learn about the backstretch community].

There is also a “Call the Race” booth. So a person can go into the booth and listen to four famous race calls. You can listen to an explanation, watch all four races, and then choose which race you would like to call. And you can send the recording to your phone or email.

So is it essentially like race call karaoke?

Yes! That’s exactly what it’s like.

You’re also incorporating other elements of the industry into the Museum lobby. Explain that.

The TV screens in the lobby feature Foal Patrol from December through June, and then we turn over [during the Saratoga race meet] and feature some of the live racing in the afternoon. But those screens when we reopen are going to show the I Am Horse Racing videos and the Godolphin Thoroughbred Industry Employee Award videos.

Art collection at the museum. (Eclipse Sportswire)

How has the Hall of Fame been transformed?

It was brought to the board’s attention that we weren’t going to be able to continue with the actual physical plaques because we were running out of space. And we are one of the only Hall of Fames that inducts active members [who are in the midst of their careers]. So now we have nine 6-foot interactive screens that people can engage with after the 16-minute film, called “What it takes: Journey to the Hall of Fame.” The film is to inform and educate people on all aspects of Thoroughbred racing, from breeding to the farms, to the racetrack, to the employees, to getting into the Hall of Fame itself.

After the film, these interactive screens come alive and you can search all 459 Hall of Fame members: jockeys, trainers, horses, and Pillars of the Turf. And the information that is on there, you can find some of it on the internet, but our goal was to provide people with content that they couldn’t get on the internet. So they have to come here to delve into the stories of these wonderful equine athletes and the professionals who are Hall of Fame inductees.

How are you maintaining viewer safety during the coronavirus pandemic?

We are limited because of COVID-19 to 24 guests per hour, because 24 guests can sit in the Hall of Fame – one person per bench, with benches set six feet apart. We don’t want to rush guests through the interactives.

What we are doing is having two-hour time blocks: from 9-11, 11-1, 1-3, and 3-5, and the show times for the film are 10, 12, 2, and 4 (all times Eastern). This allows guests to come, go through the museum, see the galleries, and then after about an hour of going through the permanent galleries in the collection, go into the Race Day Gallery, see the film, play on the interactives, and then maybe hit the gift shop on their way out, because we have a brand new gift shop.

What component are you most excited for people to see?

Everything (laughing). The film, I’ve seen over 100 times, and it literally gives me goosebumps every time. The music, the stories, hearing the Hall of Fame voices – it’s just so emotional.

It’s about what it takes to get in the Hall of Fame, but it literally takes thousands of people, and as it says in the film, less than 1 percent make it into the Hall of Fame.

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