A Tour of Churchill Downs – Home of the Kentucky Derby

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During our recent weekend road trip around the states of Indiana, Ohio and Louisville, one of the most attractive landmarks that I was really looking forward to visiting was Churchill Downs – Home of the Kentucky Derby. Located in the heart of Kentucky, Churchill Downs plays host to the most famous horse race in the world and is well worth a visit even if you don’t follow horse racing around the world.

We arrived in Louisville on Easter Sunday and had the choice of visiting either the Kentucky Derby Museum or Louisville Slugger Museum. For me, there was no choice though I think Heather was a little intrigued by the Slugger Museum. After convincing her that we could do that on our next trip to Louisville, we made our way to Churchill Downs which is located right next to the very impressive Louisville Cardinals football and baseball stadiums.

Entrance to Churchill Downs

After parking in front of the entrance to Churchill Downs you will soon see how spectacular of an attraction this really is. The grand design of the Downs features a great plaza area which you can clearly see is a great area for folks to congregate prior to heading inside the grounds on Derby Day.

churchill downs

Stood in front of the main entrance is a spectacular memorial statue of Barbaro, winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs was honored to be chosen as the final burial place for this historic horse and a bronze marker in the garden outside Gate 1 is in place to show the exact location where Barbaro’s ashes are scattered. It is a fitting tribute and what a great way to set the ambience as you walk through the Museum doors in preparation for exploring this historic site.

Kentucky Derby Museum Tour

The entrance fee to the Kentucky Derby Museum is $14 for adults, with discounted rates for seniors, youths and children. At first this may seem a little expensive but when you realize that you get a tour of Churchill Downs, a 360-degree “The Greatest Race” high-definition movie and two floors of exhibits inside the museum, you will soon know that this is a real bargain for a couple hours of excellent entertainment.

churchill downs

The order that you do the tour is entirely personal preference and will probably be determined by the time you get to the museum and whether a walking tour of the Downs is available. We just missed the 11:30AM walk so opted to visit the museum first. As you walk through the starting gates, you are immediately thrown into the Derby mood with a variety of exhibits that portray the history that makes the Kentucky Derby the ultimate horse race.

Some of the really cool attractions include the trophies of all Triple Crown horse races – the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Cup and interactive features such as testing your Derby IQ and “Callers” which allows you to test your knowledge and expertise in calling this infamous race.

churchill downs

The most famous horse races throughout the world, whether it is the Kentucky Derby in USA or Grand National at Aintree in UK all have one thing in common – it’s a day for folks to really get dressed up and in particular for females to don their eccentric hats! The Derby Museum focuses on this with exhibits that highlight some of these most memorable hats along with accounts of individuals that look back on their experience at Churchill Downs.

Both floors offer a myriad of in-depth knowledge both of this historical race but also of the horses, jockeys and trainers that have all participated throughout the years. Walking up the stairs to the second floor you will see a variety of great quotes from famous names in the world of thoroughbred racing.

The Greatest Race

After completing both levels of the museum, visitors can enter the central auditorium to watch “The Greatest Race” which is a short, 15 minute film portraying the life and daily rituals of Derby Day. Everything from horses being prepared to the meticulous preparation that goes into setting up Churchill Downs on the day of the Kentucky Derby. You are lead through a story and encapsulated into the memories and feelings that everyone associated with the Derby have gone through.

The culmination of the film allows visitors a few minutes to explore the gift shop prior to heading on to the walking tour of Churchill Downs if like us, left this until the finale.

Walking Tour of Churchill Downs

We saved the best part of the overall experience until last when we were taken on a guided tour of Churchill Downs. Everything from walking past the Wagering Windows and Tip Sheet booths where the thousands of guest placed their bets on their desired winner, to the actual grounds of the racetrack is included in this tour.

churchill downs

Starting out the guide provides some basic history of the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs but as you go deeper into the tour, they provide more details as to specific horses and inside information on why certain things are done (for example, why there are three extra stalls in the paddock for Derby horses to go down earlier in the day or even weeks prior to get used to the feeling of standing in the paddock in front of potentially thousands of visitors).

churchill downs

As you walk through the tunnel from the paddock on to the actual racetrack and turn around to see the spectacular grandstands, it really provides a memorable moment as you can imagine those jockeys preparing to ride the race of their life.

One thing that I was a little surprised about was the quality of the chairs that spectators are given to watch the Derby. They really look like they are the same chairs as were used at the inauguration in 1875.

churchill downs

Summary

What more can be said about this tour that hasn’t already been mentioned…well, this really is a truly awesome experience that was even better than I initially imagined! I would highly recommend anyone passing through the Kentucky area to check this out because you won’t be left disappointed.

For only $14, it is a real bargain that can’t be missed!

churchill downs

12 COMMENTS

  1. So fun!!! Going to the Kentucky Derby is high on my list of things I must do! I love horses and watching them race is exhilarating. I’ve even won before at the races, it would be incredible to repeat that at Churchill Downs! Loved reading about your time there.

  2. I have always been interested in the Kentucky Derby and horse races. I would love to visit this museum one day. Great details of describing you experience!

    • Thanks Angela, we had a really great experience at Churchill Downs. I think it would be really cool to experience “Derby Day” but just being able to see all the intricacies that go into this great day when the crowds are a little less was probably a good idea.

  3. Thanks for visiting my blog! One downside of visiting Churchill Downs on Derby Day was that we never had a chance to make it into the museum. Your pictures and narrative made up for that!

    • Thanks for your kind comments Irene, the experience in the museum was really cool but for us I think the best part was actually getting on to the grounds of Churchill Downs, seeing the paddock and then the racecourse which is likely very difficult when there are thousands of folks everywhere on Kentucky Derby day!

  4. What an expansive place, the museum looks quite interesting. I can imagine how festive it must be like during the main gala events – a perfect photo opportunity I’m sure.

    • Very much so Noel! It was very photogenic even when there were no festivities taking place so I agree when it is a packed Churchill Downs that it would be a photographer’s paradise. The museum is particularly interesting and you can certainly learn all about the Kentucky Derby so even if you visit there with no knowledge at all about horse racing, you can leave there knowing much, much more!

  5. Sounds like a fascinating couple of hours Chris. I would personally love to go during an eccentric hat day, not that I possess one currently, but it would be fun to get into that type of buzz. And as mentioned by others, the visuals and photo opps would be very special.

    • Paul the majority if not all racecourses are dirt or sand here in the States. I believe that the UK is one of the few that actually use grass as the surface for horse racing. The weather for the most part especially in Kentucky is much better than England so don’t get the amount of precipitation to really harm the surface.

      They actually water the surface on a daily basis so that the dirt/sand mixture doesn’t get too dry and subsequently blow away so I am assuming that a little rain would be welcome in these parts.

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