Churchill Downs is built on lasting traditions and an extraordinary visitor experience. The world’s most legendary racetrack has conducted thoroughbred racing continuously since 1875, and the Kentucky Derby attracts crowds upwards of 170,000 on an annual basis. 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 toward the iconic Starting Gates. The 77,250-square-foot project added 32 new suites that are built above an existing grandstand. Each of the three levels features trackside suites that are 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.
To create new traditions at this legendary racetrack is no small task, so we worked closely with the curator of this storied organization to better understand the rich history of the brand. Our research led us to three important aspects of the Derby experience that would ultimately become the foundation for our design: The Glamour, The Equestrian, and The Champion. Each of the three levels showcases one of these aspects of the event. On non-Derby Day, Churchill Downs feels vastly different than race day, and that’s not just due to the change in crowd volume. Truly, much 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 one of the attractions is to ‘see and be seen.’ With this in mind, we maintained the overall neutral palette for the hospitality spaces in order to showcase the raucous pageantry of Derby fashion. The moves are subtle, but the sense of place is perceived through 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. To invoke our Glamour theme, we incorporated bright, corrugated brass on the bar front complete with clustered feature lighting. Elsewhere, rustic wood textures with plaid and saddle leather accents create an Equestrian ambiance, while patent boot leather, matte black millwork, and bright brass accents reflect the Champion influence. The suites are layered with kitschy furnishings in feminine colors and patterns, while unexpected design moments characterized the restrooms.
Unlike a typical suite experience, the Starting Gate Suites do not have doors – a gesture that encourages social interaction. The wide openings allow the personality, style, and (at times) the celebrity of each of the suite-holder groups 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 ticket holders.
Our biggest design challenge was to create a best-in-class premium hospitality space with a very 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 configuration 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 nearby site improvements have been made throughout Churchill Downs’ 144-year history, so making effective connections to the complex, existing infrastructure was no easy task. We worked around a maze of existing connections, adjacencies, and utilities to ultimately design straightforward spaces that provide a clean backdrop for key storytelling moments. The resulting solutions maximize the experience for both suite holders and lounge patrons.
This 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. The project has been embraced by patrons and has quickly sold out for future race years. While originally intended to be used only for Derby weekend, the Starting Gate Suites are now being utilized year-round for private events, delivering a substantial and dependable financial benefit to our client.