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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Kentucky Derby Begins New Wave for Triple Crown Race Tracks

  • Churchill Downs is unveiling a $200 million paddock renovation.
  • Projects at the Preakness and Belmont Stakes are pending, too.
The Courier-Journal

The first leg of the Triple Crown begins Saturday at the Kentucky Derby, and with it a new era for facilities tied to horse racing’s biggest and most important events. Churchill Downs is unveiling a brand-new paddock after $200 million worth of renovations were completed in time for the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby.

“The experience is going to be drastically different if you haven’t been here in a couple of years,” Churchill Downs president Mike Anderson tells Front Office Sports. The track’s famous twin spires, originally constructed over the grandstands in 1895, are now much more visible for spectators. “Before, when you walked through the front entrance, there was a building right smack in front of you, a hundred feet, that really kind of blocked the view,” Anderson explains. Churchill Downs also added about 3,000 more seats to the main paddock ring, which has been depressed by about seven feet, to give the area a more coliseum-like feel.

For Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby, this marks the conclusion of a project announced nearly three years ago. But for the other two legs of the Triple Crown, major facility work is just getting started. Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness Stakes, appears to be getting closer to receiving $400 million in funds to rebuild the 153-year-old track, pending approval from the Maryland legislature. And the Belmont Stakes is being held in Saratoga, N.Y., this year and next as its Long Island home, Belmont Park, undergoes a $455 million renovation project that is set to be completed by 2026. If everything goes as planned, all three legs of horse racing’s Triple Crown could be fully modernized by the end of this decade.

Ugly Side of the Sport

Last year, 12 horses died at Churchill Downs around the Kentucky Derby, as the entire industry faced horse deaths head-on, resulting in extended closures of many tracks. An investigation into the deaths at Churchill Down, specifically, found no singular cause, it was announced last fall. “Unfortunately, there was no kind of, aha, that’s it, and that’s our fix,” says Anderson, who also points out that the track has emphasized new screening measures to ensure horse safety. 

Meanwhile, this Kentucky Derby won’t feature any horses from legendary trainer Bob Baffert, who last summer had his initial two-year ban related to a failed drug test extended another 12 months by Churchill Downs, despite now being eligible to compete at the other two Triple Crown events. “I do think there has been a division within the industry,” FanDuel TV anchor Todd Schrupp said on Front Office Sports Today. “Some who believe that Bob Baffert has paid his penalty, that his transgressions are not as egregious as what has been portrayed.”

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