LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Toni Goodman was close enough to see the horses kicking up dirt as they raced past, having spent a mere $5 for her trackside seat to an event just days before the Kentucky Derby.
But the 56-year-old Kentucky native won’t be anywhere near Churchill Downs on Saturday to watch the Run for the Roses.
“I think the Derby’s great,” Goodman said before the start of a claiming race featuring also-rans. “It lets people come in to see how beautiful our state is. It’s just not doable for me.”
One of the great sporting events has long been a world of contrasting styles, with a massive gulf separating the wealthy and famous preening on Millionaires Row from the T-shirt and jeans crowd in the infield. Major renovations completed in recent years, most of them geared toward well-heeled fans, seem to have put more distance between those worlds.
This year’s average ticket price to attend the Derby — a 2-minute horse race highlighting a full day of racing, partying and people watching — is $432, according to VividSeats.com. The Derby typically generates a brisk secondary ticket market as well.
The trend to offer high-end packages at sports venues reaches far beyond the Kentucky Derby. Any venue hosting a Super Bowl, World Series or even an All-Star Game creates an experience to cater to high rollers. New stadium construction often involves luxury suites, technology upgrades and other perks that cater to a high-income spectator. But such projects often face criticism that they squeeze out middle and lower-income fans.
Churchill Downs seems to burst at the seams on Derby Day, when more than 160,000 people pack into the venerable track and infield. Churchill’s parent company has pumped about $250 million into renovations since the early 2000s. The investment is meant to maximize revenue from the Derby and Kentucky Oaks, a race for 3-year-old fillies the day before the Derby.
This year’s $16 million upgrade modernized the second-floor clubhouse. The update includes a fresh Twin Spires Club Elite Gold Room exclusive to VIP bettors. It’s adjacent to an enlarged Champions Bar that includes covered balconies with table seating offering prime views of the paddock.
Such upgrades are geared toward fans willing to shell out big money for panoramic views, sumptuous buffets and access to betting windows and restrooms without lines. Options for premium seating seem almost as numerous as the field of Derby horses. Demand outpaces available seating, which has Churchill preparing for another expansion.
Work has started on the Starting Gate Suites, scheduled to open in time for the 2018 Derby.
The suites — being built above the third-floor grandstand — will feature private dining tables and a balcony overlooking the starting gate at the top of the homestretch.
Track officials said pricing is expected soon for the suites, the key part of the $37 million project that will boost Derby Day capacity by more than 1,800 seats.
“They’ll have a bird’s eye view,” said track General Manager Ryan Jordan.
Other upscale spots to watch the Derby include the Finish Line Suites, Turf Club, Jockey Club Suites and the most exclusive of all — The Mansion, a tony enclave perched on the sixth floor of the clubhouse.
Paul Amburgey and his wife, Linda, spend Derby Day like many other Louisvillians — at an off-track party. They come to Churchill a few times each race meet, but don’t even try to get Derby tickets. The reason: “The crowds, the cost,” Linda Amburgey said.
“They cater more to the big money,” her husband said. “Everything they’re building is for people who have the money to pay for all this new stuff they’ve got.”
Churchill officials point out that renovations have improved the Derby experience at all price points. People thronging to the infield pay less than $100 apiece for access to the daylong Derby party. People ordering 2017 infield tickets late last year paid $60 each. The price escalates to $80 at the gate. T-shirts, jeans or shorts are common infield attire, which distinguishes race-goers from the flowery hats and dapper attire across the track in the suites.
“There are people from all walks of life all over the track,” said track President Kevin Flanery. “Whatever party you want, we can throw it. And we can throw all of them on the same day.”
For more than a decade, infield ticket prices stayed the same at $40 apiece through 2012. Incremental increases have occurred since. Ticket prices have escalated elsewhere around the track in recent years, track officials said.
Track officials point to improvements in recent years to the grandstand and infield that added more restrooms, concession stands and betting windows.
The gigantic video board installed three years ago offers a living-room view for tens of thousands crammed into the infield, and many of them never glimpse at a horse during the day.
“We have improved the experience for pretty much every category of ticket customer,” Jordan said.
But the infield’s party-like atmosphere doesn’t appeal to Goodman, and the money she’d spend on Derby tickets elsewhere at the track would help pay her bills, she said.
A few sections away, track regular Mike Lee, 61, will be at a family party on Derby Day, as usual. He’s never attended the Derby but didn’t seem to mind. He was happy drinking a couple of beers and betting the horses on a day when the crowd was much smaller. The improvements catering to deep-pocketed fans didn’t bother him a bit.
“I don’t even worry about that stuff,” he said. “You don’t have to have a lot of money to enjoy yourself.”
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