A Trot Down Memory Lane

TVT_4646Located in the front of Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Derby Museum is a terrific introductory element for anyone visiting the world-famous racetrack. The museum’s President, Lynn Ashton, quotes the non-profit operation’s mission statement:

“Our Mission is to engage, educate and excite everyone about the extraordinary experience that is the Kentucky Derby.”

Even on a Monday morning, guests ranging from local folks to international travellers are arriving. “We really have a very nice season,” says Ashton. “We start picking up in the middle of March and then we roll right through the fall.”

Started in 1985, the museum is celebrating thirty years right now – and I can say that it has grown dramatically since I last visited on a high school field trip. The place has figured out the experience it wants to provide its visitors through clever design. From the entrance where you can see a video wall of horses emerging from the starting gate –to a much grander video presentation at the end, there are so many displays of Derby artifacts and interactive setups along the way.

The recent unveiling of their new exhibit “Stars of the Stands,” which will be a growing feature over two years, contains various old black and white photographs along with relics associated with the celebrities or the popular entertainments they represented. There’s also a movie reel featuring clips from Derby-related films and TV shows leading up to Secretariat’s win in 1973.

TVT_4674“Next year’s exhibit will pick up in the mid-seventies and come up to right now,” says Ashton. “It’s very interesting because Thoroughbred racing has a great tie with celebrities –other than just The Derby.”

“When Colonel Matt Winn took over as president of Churchill Downs he was really the man who came up with all the traditions and made Derby as we know it today.” She goes on to explain the undeniable allure of visiting famous people and how many of them living in California, were invested in that state’s horseracing boom of the time. Bringing in the New York press helped expose the Derby’s growing popularity as well.

Matt Winn is honored at the museum, with his chair and jacket for all to see alongside other great contributors to the Kentucky Derby.

Throughout the museum there are various attractions. Famous attire worn at the Derby is on display along with Derby hat design winners from boutiques and individuals. There’s a breakdown of Vantage points for people planning to attend the Derby, called “My Spot.” You can watch a classic race while acting as a track announcer and listen to your playback after. There’s even a section, which focuses on the blacksmithing of a horseshoe.

Racing history buffs should get something from the Warner L. Jones Jr. Time Machine – an archive station where you can review all past Derbies with video content of filmed races dating back to 1918. It was interesting to notice in the old footage, that there was no start gate in the oldest races. The museum still has The Downs’ first electric gate, which was in use from 1940 through 1977.

An interactive horseracing simulation is set up like an arcade game, where you can sit atop an artificial horseback –which gives TVT_4640guests an idea of how many actions are crucial for a jockey to succeed in a race. It’s unquestionably involving.

Dedications to all the triple-crown winners are in one of the wings along with an open spot – should there be another. As a matter of fact, a trophy for a future triple-crown winner is on display. Right now, this year’s 22” tall 66 oz. Derby trophy is exhibited and guarded daily.

The highlight feature for guests is the film, “The Greatest Race” – an annually updated short documentary piece presented on a 360º screen in The Great Hall section of the museum, which plays every hour of operation. After the film has commenced, guests are offered the Historic Walking Tour, which is a half-hour exploration of The Downs.

The museum is continuing to provide an entertaining education for all its visitors. It’s a large contemporary exhibition of a grand old tradition, for which this city is undoubtedly proud.  VT

For more information, go to www.derbymuseum.org.

Photos by Chris Humphreys | THE VOICE-TRIBUNE