Churchill Downs officials unveiled $18 million in upgrades this morning, including expanded upscale seating areas and more food options. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.
Churchill Downs officials unveiled $18 million in upgrades this morning, including expanded upscale seating areas and more food options. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

Churchill Downs Racetrack today unveiled an $18 million improvement project that added upscale seats, more food options and tech upgrades, including an app that will allow some customers to order food from their seats.

Company officials hope the investment will help the track remain relevant as it competes for an audience with ever greater entertainments options.

Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery talks about a new outdoor seating area. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.
Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery talks about a new outdoor seating area. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

On Tuesday morning, some of the upgraded visitor areas looked ready for race day. The smell of potato and asparagus, grilled radicchio wedges and grilled vegetable penne wafted through the Turf Club as kitchen personnel, dressed in crisp white shirts, awaited orders.

In other areas, construction was ongoing. One worker knelt to scrape clean the floors. Another lay on his back to install tables.

“We’re going to be ready opening night,” said  Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery.

He said the upgrades, which include more bars and other “points of service” will provide guests with more options and help reduce wait times.

The Turf Club also gained a new balcony, additional seating, a central bar and an open kitchen that displays a rotisserie and pizza oven.

Turf Club memberships start at $2,000 per year. The club has about 1,800 members, which, the company hopes, will increase because of the latest upgrades. The company said premium seating capacity has increased to 2,660, up 41 percent.

Flanery said the investments also serve to keep the track competitive compared to other race tracks — and other local entertainment options.

Before they implemented the changes, Churchill Downs officials sought information from customers and visited other tracks and sporting venues around the country to gauge consumer demands.

This year, consumers in some areas will be able to order food with a smartphone app and pick it up in an express line. Upscale seating areas also come with charging stations for mobile devices.

Brown bridle straps serve to separate some of the seating areas at Churchill Downs. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.
Brown bridle straps serve to separate some of the seating areas at Churchill Downs. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

Churchill Downs leaders know, however, that they have to strike a balance between the need for modern amenities and the track’s rich tradition, which is reflected in the decor. For example, brown bridle straps serve as a separators between some seating areas, and some walls display photos of famous visitors and historic races.

The track has to compete for spectators with tracks across the country — but also with nearby casinos, movie theaters and the local soccer club, Flanery said.

“We’re in competition with every other entertainment (option) in the area,” he said.

Last year’s Derby saw attendance records, Flanery said, and new events, such as Twilight Thursday, which was introduced last year and includes food trucks and dollar beer, will return this year thanks to good attendance.

In the last six years, Churchill Downs has spent nearly $70 million on capital improvements. In the last 15 years, the company has spent about $190 million.

The track will host the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby on May 7.

The track’s parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., reported revenues of $1.2 billion last year, up 49 percent from the prior year. Net income, at $65.2 million, improved more than 40.5 percent.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.