OFF TO THE RACES: Club SI debuted April 27 to kick off a week of horse racing, which culminates with Saturday’s 150th running of the Kentucky Derby. (Courtesy venue)

$200 million paddock renovation broke ground 18 months ago; 2023 renovation added 7,000 seats.

Churchill Downs Racetrack has been preparing for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, the 150th edition, for the past several years, including $500 million in venue renovations and new multi-year partnerships to elevate the fan experience.

“There’s definitely been a three-year ramp up to the 150th,” said Sarah Contardo, vice president of sales and strategy for the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs. “I’ve personally been involved for about seven years in conversations about it and a whole lot of thought and feedback from key stakeholders went into making sure it turned out spectacularly.”

A $200 million paddock renovation broke ground 18 months ago and follows on the heels of the home stretch renovation in 2022 and the debut of first turn renovations in 2023, which added 7,000 spectator seats.

“We didn’t lose the historical elements,” Contardo said of the reimagined paddock, where horses are saddled and jockeys mount up. “One of our goals was to highlight the history and our story. The original building from 1895 had been shrouded by years of renovations. It wasn’t honoring that building and that history the way we wanted to.”

Today, the Twin Spires loom large and unobstructed and the names of former Derby winners line the porticos. The architects at Populous significantly increased paddock viewing with tiered platforms as well as the creation of two new branded club spaces.

“We joke, whatever party you want, we’ve got it on Derby Day,” said Contardo, gearing up for her 12th Kentucky Derby.

The Derby celebration must fit everyone’s expectations from the raucous infield party crowd to discerning international attendees and A-list celebrities who are looking for a luxury experience.

“We are able to provide that in one of our three clubs, two of the clubs being new this year,” said Contardo, who oversees ticketing, premium hospitality and suites, customer experience and product development, plus international market expansion.

Sports Illustrated and Woodford Reserve hold naming rights for the two new luxury hospitality areas. Club SI and the Woodford Reserve Paddock Club debuted on April 27 to kick off Derby Week ahead of the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday in Louisville.

The clubs flank each side of the newly renovated paddock and are ticket only, with sales managed by the racetrack’s luxury team. For the first time, the Woodford Reserve Paddock Club offers ticketed guests access to the paddock circling ring via an exclusive underground tunnel. It is a full-concierge club for 350 to 400 people with a team dedicated to each guest from escorting them from the parking lot to complimentary hair and makeup services in the restrooms and cigar rollers.

NEW VIEW: Paddock renovations totaling $200 million  broke ground 18 months ago. (Courtesy venue)

Club SI will feature Sports Illustrated magazine covers and editorial content and images from previous races, and features views directly into the back of the paddock stalls from inside the club and access to view each race rail-side.

“It feels like you are at Churchill Downs but with all the artifacts and history that we share with SI,” Contardo said.

The club, which has a capacity of up to 600 guests, also features celebrity ambassadors serving as hosts of Club SI for Derby week. Kicking off the program is Football Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith and Sports Illustrated cover model Brooks Nader, who will be hosting the inaugural Club SI event on Saturday. The grand opening event also aligns with the 70th anniversary year for the magazine.

Sarah Contardo

Club SI wincludes dining tables to accommodate parties of up to eight guests with access to a buffet meal, designated wagering windows, private bars and outdoor trackside viewing for live races. Steps away is the SI Enclosure, which will deliver a front-row experience of the Paddock with covered outdoor dining tables to accommodate parties of four.

“People have been blown away by the level of detail and care that we took in both of those two spaces,” said Contardo. “We were very meticulous about the design and ensuring how the customers were going to use it, from watching the races at the rail all the way to how the food and beverage service was going to occur.”