05/02/2013 12:22PM

Kentucky Derby: Churchill's Mansion offers best seat in the house

Matt Hegarty
A look inside the new 8,000 square-foot Mansion at Churchill Downs, which will entertain up to 320 guests at $7,000 to $12,500 each for the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby.

LOUISVILLE − For those A-listers, oligarchs, and monarchs who are sick and tired of slumming it on Millionaire’s Row, Churchill Downs finally has an answer: the Mansion, a posh new invitation-only amphitheater of excess six floors over the track’s finish line.

Part of a $9 million renovation of the track over the past year, the Mansion – 8,000 square feet of subtly themed indoor lounges and 2,000 square feet of prime outdoor viewing space – will entertain as many as 320 guests for this year’s Oaks and Derby. Single tickets cost between $7,000 and $12,500, depending on amenities and the number of tickets an individual bought. The joint is sold out, Churchill officials said, with the tickets sold on a three- to seven-year contract.

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For the truly jet-set, the Mansion is offering a private party unlike any other in sports. Access through a private elevator behind an unmarked door. High-end concierge services. No fawning reporters or fanatical photographers allowed (Churchill officials say that aside from serving staff, only two people at the entire company have access to the room on Oaks and Derby day). And the best seat in the house, if you’re looking for a plush post-modern chair in front of a gator-skin coffee table in arm’s reach of a chilled champagne bucket.

So who made the guest list? Churchill won’t say, in line with a policy that is designed to safeguard the privacy of those who will occupy the Mansion. But clearly, Churchill wants the hoi polloi to think quarterbacks, the elite ones who have already gone through a couple of supermodels. Or casino moguls, as long as they have connections high up in the Chinese Politburo. Or hedge-fund managers, the ones too cool for taxes.

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“If you are going to rank the finest hotel rooms and suites in the world, this is the type of customer who is going to be up here and enjoying the mansion,” said Darren Rogers, Churchill’s vice president of communications, as he led a tour of the area Wednesday.

All major sporting and entertainment venues have luxury boxes designed to make the 1 percent feel at home, but the overwhelming majority of those private areas are intimate and insulated, designed for a couple of dozen hangers-on at best. Moreover, those boxes don’t have areas in which the event itself is shielded from view. The Mansion, which has no live view of the track aside from the two patios and very few walls to separate its areas, breaks that mold dramatically.

Churchill officials said the unique nature of a day at the races justifies the design.

“When you buy a suite at the Super Bowl, for example, on the 50-yard line, you are fixated on the field over a three-hour time period,” Rogers said. “When you are enjoying a day at the races, you have 40-minutes to an hour-and-a-half between races on Derby day. So you step out on to the balcony [to watch the race], and then you retreat and enjoy conversation and visiting in this great environment.”

For corporate Churchill, the Mansion bears the indelible strategic stamp of chief executive Bob Evans, who took over the top position at the company in 2006. Evans has spent the last several years attempting to nudge the brand of the Derby into the territory of the haute couture, literally rolling out the red carpet for celebrities and insisting that television networks cover the event as a cultural gem of Kentucky.

At an approximate average of $10,000 a ticket, revenue for the Mansion this year will be at least $3 million. But that’s not counting the revenue that Churchill will reap from putting 300 hyper-competitive, ultra-rich A-types in the same room to watch a sport in which banter over the size of a bet is de rigueur. Nor does that count the luxurious margins on any items the concierge might acquire at a customer’s request, such as a rare bottle of Henri Jayer Richebourg Grand Cru or a stretch Hummer limo ride from the private-jet terminal at nearby Standiford Field.

Little expense appears to have been spared even without special requests. The well brands at the Mansion’s wraparound bar are Woodfood Reserve Distiller’s Select, Macallan 12- and 15-year, Grey Goose Vodka, and Bacardi Oakheart. A nearby server station is manned by Sarah Grueneberg, the executive chef at Spiaggia restaurant who is a celebrity herself, having finished second in Bravo network’s “Top Chef” television series last year.

“This is going to be a trend-setter,” Rogers said. “I would not be at all surprised if other sports followed in our footsteps.”