10/26/2012 3:20PM

Churchill: Sounds of construction mix with thundering hooves as track undergoes another facelift

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Churchill Downs
The new Plaza area will handle multitudes on Derby weekend.

Quite a few dominoes – and walls – are falling at Churchill Downs in the wake of the parent company moving their corporate offices away from the flagship track. All that rearranging will be hard for ontrack fans to miss when the Louisville, Ky., track opens Sunday for a four-week fall meet.

The opening of the shiny new corporate offices some 20 minutes away in the east end of Louisville was an impetus in the latest major reconstruction at Churchill, where a three-fold project has been under way since the spring meet ended in early July. A new media center is going where the corporate offices once were located on the first-floor grandstand; the much-ballyhooed “Mansion” facility will go in the sixth-floor clubhouse space once occupied by the media center; and the long-defunct Paddock Pavilion has been razed, clearing the way for new paddock-area features and about 30,000 additional square feet in much-needed elbow room.

The projects were publicly unveiled this summer and are expected to total about $9 million, according to Churchill spokesman Darren Rogers. All are scheduled for completion well before the 2013 spring meet and Kentucky Derby, meaning fans might have to tolerate a bit of inconvenience during this fall meet – although that will be minor compared to what transpired at Churchill for the nearly two-year period during 2003-05 when a $121 million renovation was ongoing.

“We’re excited about all the improvements and believe they will make a big difference for a sizable number of our guests,” said Rogers. “We’re always looking for ways to improve the customer experience.”

The media center, which has no view of the track in its new location just inside of Gate 1, is being modernized so as to far better accommodate the new forms of communications that now dominate the world landscape, namely visual and digital mediums. In all, upward of 800 media members can be accommodated at peak times, according to Rogers, and outside seating near the eighth pole is being reserved for credentialed media. In addition, the Gold Room for high-end horseplayers has been relocated from its former sixth-floor location adjacent to the old media center to the former Champions Lounge, a larger room with a view of the paddock from the second floor.

The Mansion, which Churchill has touted as a new venue that will meld the track’s “historic past to provide lavish ambience, panoramic views, and unprecedented levels of personal service, elegance and excitement,” is being sold in package deals in the “thousands to tens of thousands” of dollars, according to track president Kevin Flanery. With the Mansion, the track hopes to take “the Kentucky Derby experience to an extraordinary new level,” he added.

For non-millionaires, the Plaza area is the most notable coming addition. The huge amount of new space will be particularly useful during Derby weekend but also is being converted into a multi-use space that should prove very popular with fans, said Rogers. One primary feature to be ready by next spring is the Plaza balcony, which will include a walkway for jockeys to the paddock and many other nice finishing touches that will incorporate the track’s history.