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The Kentucky Derby by the numbers

5/2/2007

When the final numbers are tallied for the 133rd running of the Kentucky Derby this Saturday, the figures will be staggering.

These eye-opening calculations will have nothing to do with race times or pari-mutuel payouts, but more to do with a phenomenon that is one of the signature sporting events in American culture.

Consider the following: On Derby Day, more than 155,000 people will pile into Churchill Downs. This will not include the 11,576 employees, who will prepare 100,000 glasses of mint juleps; 1,112 pounds of smoked chicken; 2,816 pounds of barbeque shrimp; and 4,000 pounds of beef.

In all, guests will consume more than 45,000 hot dogs; 300,000 cans of beer; 24,500 pieces of Derby Pie; 3,400 glasses of Dom Perignon; and use 440,000 pounds of ice. Pari-mutuel tellers will print nearly 1.2 million betting tickets for handicappers that, if put side by side, would stretch out nearly 46 miles.

Some other astounding numbers: There will be more than 1,850 members of the press on hand from nearly every civilized country in the world to report the day's happenings. And if all of this does not give you a clear enough picture of the sheer magnitude of the event, try this: More than 800 cubic yards of manure will be removed from the barns at Churchill Downs on May 5. All of this indulgence for about 122 seconds of racing.

"I've been a part of the Kentucky Derby since 1967 and I'm amazed at how it gets bigger every year," said David Sweazy, vice president of operations for Churchill Downs and a Kentucky native. "I think the thing that stands out most for me is the electricity of the crowd just before the start of the race. It is deafening. That, and during the singing "My Old Kentucky Home." There is not a dry eye in the place when it is over.

"It doesn't matter if you're from Louisville, Pittsburgh or Los Angeles, or if you're rich, middle class, or a celebrity. The Derby is an experience that everyone can enjoy. People from all walks of life come out for a good time."

The magnitude of the Kentucky Derby cannot be understated. It is the oldest continuous running sporting event in the United States, and other than the Super Bowl, there is no bigger one-day sports spectacle in the nation. Aside from the hundreds of thousands of people who will wager more than $100 million on the race, millions more will watch on television. Additionally, in 2001, a study reported that Kentucky Derby weekend provides a $218 million boost to the Kentucky economy.

To understand the money and excitement that the Derby generates, you have to go all the way back to the 1700's, when horse racing first became a part of Kentucky culture.

Horse racing in Louisville dates back to 1783 when the first races were reportedly held on Market Street in the downtown area. Although the first real course was constructed in 1805, it would take almost seventy more years before the Kentucky Derby would begin. On May 27, 1874 the first public notice that races would be run at a newly-erected racetrack was reported in a local newspaper. The following year, the racetrack, not yet formally named, was opened to the public.

On May 17, 1875, track founder M. Lewis Clark held the first official day of racing. There were four races on the card that day, including the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby. The Derby was won by a 3-year old colt named Aristides. He was ridden and trained by Oliver Lewis and Ansel Williamson.

It wasn't until 1883 that the racetrack officially became known as Churchill Downs. A series of financial problems plagued it for many years, but in 1937 Churchill Downs was incorporated and shortly thereafter it began to flourish.

In 1952, the first national telecast of the Kentucky Derby was aired. Thirty years after that the computerized pari-mutual system was developed. These two milestones, along with the numerous track renovations, the development of the Kentucky Derby Museum in 1974 and the continued growth of the sport, have made the Kentucky Derby into what it is today.

"There is no doubt that history plays a big part of what the Derby is," Sweazy said. "Like anything, the older something is, the more it becomes meaningful to people. Horse racing is part of culture down here and always will be. Growing up, you see horses and hear people talk about horses from the time you can remember.

"People are proud of the history. They tell stories of how their grandfathers used to ride around in horse-drawn wagons and talk about their favorite Derby memories. Time is what makes things special."

Although the Kentucky Derby is undoubtedly the premier event, the allure is much more than just race day. In fact, the town of Louisville gears up for its signature race two full weeks before, beginning with Kickoff Luncheon that is held on the third weekend of April every year. The gigantic food festival is followed by the annual Thunder Over Louisville, an enormous air show and fireworks display that attracts over 800,000 people from all around the region. It is considered the nation's best fireworks display.

In the days leading up to the big race, there will be balloon races, parades, a Derby festival, a children's spelling bee and many more activities that are designed to generate excitement. On Friday, the day before the Derby, the Kentucky Oaks is run. It will draw more than 100,000 people.

"Even before the Kickoff Luncheon there is a level of excitement that you can feel in town," said Thomas Scheinder, vice president of guest services at Churchill Downs. "The build-up starts during March when the prep races are going on. People start to learn about the different horses, trainers and owners, and the specifics of who is going to be involved. You can tell people become more aware.

"Then, when we get into Derby week, it is full blown mania around here. There is electricity everywhere. People talk about it everywhere you go, people that aren't even racing fans."

In 2005 Churchill Downs completed a $121 million renovations project. The erection of the Jockey Club Suites and massive reconstruction of the clubhouse has solidified it as one of the best racetracks in the country. On the first Saturday in May, there is no doubt about that.