"One minute to post time in the Great Hall. Please join us for the greatest race."
The lights dim in the Great Hall; a hush falls over the crowd. Ten feet above the floor, 96 slide projectors hurl images around the 360-degree oval screen. It's the Churchill Downs backstretch, 5:30 a.m. Birds chirp, a horse whinnies, and "You are there," as Walter Cronkite used to say. In just under 14 minutes, the visitor is taken through Derby Day, starting at dawn when all is quiet, to the race itself, with the horses thundering toward the wire and the crowd roaring.
The focus of the show, which was created by Donna Lawrence Productions of Louisville, is the 1984 Kentucky Derby and its winner, Swale. Along the way, a mare is shown lying down to give birth to a foal that may someday win the Derby, and the voices of Swale's trainer, Woody Stephens, his jockey, Laffit Pincay Jr., and of John Sosby, the manager of Claiborne Farm (where Swale was foaled), are heard talking about their hopes for this colt. There are pictures of horses working out in the morning fog, and you hear the sound of hoofbeats as they gallop along the screen. Then the sights and sounds of Derby Day surround the visitor, accompanied by music with a driving beat that quickens in tempo as the "day" progresses. Here are phones ringing off the hook in the track offices, harrows working the track, planes by the hundreds landing at Standiford Field, the parties, the vendors, the beautiful women in their elaborate hats and then, suddenly, all around the room, Churchill Downs is projected in its entirety so that you feel as if you're standing smack in the middle of the infield surrounded by the roar of hundreds of thousands of fans. This is a showstopper. Visitors' mouths drop open and their eyes light up as they turn and turn again to take it all in. My reaction is the same every time. I get teary-eyed and break out in goosebumps.
Then you hear Pincay: "I said, 'God, I never asked you to help me win a race, but if you could give me a little push, I'd appreciate it.' " And then, after Swale wins, Sosby, his voice choked with emotion: "I wanted to run. I wanted to fly. I was crying. I wanted to tell the world who he was and what we'd done with him; that he was our horse...." These words are especially poignant because only six weeks later, a week after winning the Belmont Stakes, Swale died.
Each year, the end of the slide show is updated so that the visitor can hear the track announcer's call and see the most recent Kentucky Derby winner's stretch run. The multi-image show is repeated hourly, starting at 9:30 a.m., continuing until 4:30 p.m. The lower level of the museum has a changing exhibit of art works, and the upper level is designed so that you move from exhibit to exhibit, with numbers on pillars to guide the way. It starts with the ancient Greeks, who believed the horse was given to man as a gift from Poseidon, god of the sea, and moves on to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about conformation, the mechanics of a horse's stride, breeding, etc. For those who don't want to learn about the technical aspects of horses and horse racing, there are other fun things to see and do. A full-sized plaster horse stands in a real starting gate next to a big mirror painted with the outline of a jockey in a riding crouch. Visitors can climb on the plaster horse and compare their riding seat with the jockey's.
All in all, there's something for everybody, from preschoolers to jaded race-goers. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $3.00 for adults, $2.50 for seniors 65 and over and $1.50 for children 5 to 12. It's the next-best thing to being at trackside on the first Saturday in May. And after you visit, you can tell people you went to see the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, and you won't even be lying.