May day: The Kentucky Derby's home is a monument
It is the first Saturday in May, 2002; my first Kentucky Derby as Sports Illustrated's horse racing writer, following the deep footprints of my former SI colleague, Bill Nack. Ninety minutes prior to the race, SI reporter Mark Beech and I walk to around the clubhouse turn at the Downs to access the barn area, in order to later make the same walk in reverse to the saddling paddock with the horses and their connections. It is a something of a ritual, albeit a challenging one, in deep sand with dress shoes.
We are about to leave the far turn, slogging along in the thick loam, when Beech stops and points back toward the finish line. I don't remember his exact words; something along the lines of the "Pretty impressive.''
Man, was it ever. The endless grandstand. The sea of humanity, more than 150,000 strong. The iconic twin spires atop the roof. I recall carping to Beech at that time that it was a shame I couldn't enjoy the moment, because I was too wrapped up in getting ready to write a story about one of 20 horses (while not knowing which one). But that's not entirely true. The moment stayed with me. And it comes back to me every year when I return to Louisville.
Every sports venue touches visitors. Some because they are old. Or new. Some because they are remote. Or in the middle of a city. Some because they are comfortable. Or not. Then there is an entirely different category of venue that seizes a visitor's soul and fills it with a sense of time and past glory. These are the venues with a pulse, and Churchill Downs is such a place.
To understand Churchill Downs is to stand amid the box seats overlooking the homestretch and understand that from these very chairs (yes, rickety old chairs, like in your grandmother's attic or a garage sale nearby) fans raised their mint juleps in celebration of Secretariat in 1973. That in 1957 they watched, stunned, as Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line on Gallant Man and allowed Iron Liege to pass him at the wire. And then, in amazement, 29 years later, when The Shoe found a hole for Ferdinand to win the last of his four Derbies. They saw the remarkable War Admiral win here before losing to Seabiscuit. The list is endless.
To understand Churchill Downs is to walk the uneven cobblestones in the open air on the ground floor and feel that patrons stood on these very rocks, waiting to throw down $2 to win on Swaps or Nashua more than half a century ago. It is to listen as the field of 20 rushes past the finish line for the first time before circling the massive track and know that Gallant Fox (1933) and Whirlaway (1941) and Count Fleet (1943) all made the same journey in this same place. As did the late Barbaro in 2006, in one of the most impressive victories in the history of the Derby, and one that would be freighted with meaning by the events of two weeks later in Baltimore.
The modern sports world is a crowded and bustling place. There is a furious pursuit of the fabulous and new. Stadiums must be shiny, sprawling structures, like five-star hotels with multiple restaurants to match. Spectators need comfort. Churchill Downs is not immune. Much has been done to the track in recent years to make it a modern showcase, with attendant upgrades. The once-towering spires are now framed by cruise ship-sized luxury box additions, which extend off the back off the grandstand, towering five stories above the paddock. Yet it is impossible to stamp out 133 years of history with concrete and cushions alone. The ghosts will not have it.
Every moment spent inside the building is a moment spent understanding that great things happened in this very place. When you follow the horses from the paddock to the track while My Old Kentucky Home fills the spring air, you understand that Bill Hartack guided Northern Dancer along this same earth in 1964.
Churchill demands that the visitor close his eyes and recall a time when racing was a premier American sport, alongside baseball and boxing. When Americans gathered in the millions by their radios to listen to the call of the Kentucky Derby. Much has changed since those days, but fundamentally, Churchill Downs has not. It is a race track, but also a monument. It is a venue, but also a landmark. It is more than sport; it is history.
2. Fenway Park
3. Hayward Field (University of Oregon track stadium)
4. Notre Dame Stadium
5. The Hahnenkamm Downhill, Kitzbuehel, Austria