Churchill Downs is built on lasting traditions and extraordinary visitor experiences.The world’s most legendary racetrack has conducted thoroughbred racing continuously since 1875, and the annual Kentucky Derby attracts nearly 170,000 capacity crowds. Our challenge was to look to the future by identifying a logical development of site-wide enhancements and revenue generators that would each have a measurable return on investment, while also preserving the rich culture and prestige of the Churchill Downs brand. Phase one of our multi-phase project included the expansion of the existing Jockey Club Suite tower towards the iconic starting gates. The 77,250-square-foot project added 32 new suites, which are built above an existing grandstand. Each of the three levels features trackside suites adjacent to a large bar and dining experience. Overall, the project added a new entry stair tower, 1,910 new seats, three new viewing terraces, three large bars, three large buffets, and 71 new wager machines.
We did not take the responsibility of creating new traditions at Churchill Downs lightly, so from the beginning, we worked closely with their curator to better understand the rich history of the brand. Our research led us to three important aspects of the Derby experience that would become our foundation for design: The Glamour, The Equestrian, and The Champion. Each of the three levels showcases one of these aspects of the event.
On non-Derby days, Churchill Downs feels vastly different, and not just due to crowd volume. Most of the quirky spirit of the experience comes from the patrons themselves. In many ways, the Derby is the world’s largest and most entertaining fashion show and a place to “see and be seen”. Because of this attraction, we kept the overall palette for the hospitality spaces neutral to showcase the raucous pageantry of Derby fashion. The moves are subtle, but the sense of place comes through in materiality, lighting, and millwork detailing, as well as a more deliberate integration of historic graphics to help tell the story. All lounge spaces have an equestrian patina, but each is layered with unique details, such as the bright corrugated brass bar front with clustered feature lighting (Glamour), rustic wood textures with plaid and saddle leather accents (Equestrian), or patent boot leather, matte black millwork, and bright brass accents (Champion). The suites are layered with kitschy furnishings in feminine colors and patterns, and we created unexpected design moments in the public restrooms.
Unlike a typical suite experience, The Starting Gate Suites do not have doors, which encourages social interaction. The wide openings allow the personality, style, and at times, the celebrity of each suite holder group to spill out into the lounges. There is an energetic and voyeuristic quality to this connection that contributes to the experience for all Starting Gate Suite Holders.
Our biggest design challenge was creating a best-in-class premium hospitality space on a modest budget. We were also challenged to design a flexible environment that would yield the largest capacity and maximize return on investment. We kept our layout as efficient and straightforward as possible, hence the simple and repetitive layout from floor to floor. We were purposeful with our design touches, focusing our budget on the feature bars, lighting features, branding elements, and suite millwork.
Many improvements have been integrated throughout the 144-year history of Churchill Downs, and connecting to the complex infrastructure was no easy task. We worked around a maze of existing connections, adjacencies, and systems, and ultimately designed straightforward spaces that provide a clean backdrop for key storytelling moments. The resulting solutions maximize the experience for both suite holders and lounge patrons.
Our logical development of enhancements and revenue generators has created a measurable return on investment. The client appreciated our straightforward approach to layout, the flexibility of the spaces, and the subtle integration of nostalgia into a more modern environment. Last spring at the Kentucky Derby, the project was embraced by patrons and quickly sold out for next year’s race. While originally intended to be used only for Derby weekend, the Starting Gate Suites are not shuttered and are now utilized year-round for private events, a great financial benefit to our client.