If the Derby's on Your Bucket List, This Is the Only Way to Go
Steve Cauthen was 18 years old when he rode eventual Triple Crown winner Affirmed to victory in his first Kentucky Derby in 1978. He was so fresh-faced as to be affectionately known as "The Kid." And yet, as he competed in the race of his dreams not far from his Walton, Ky., roots, he was old enough to realize that he should make certain the scene stayed with him forever.
Cauthen took in all of the sights and sounds. When the band played "My Old Kentucky Home" during the post parade to the starting gate, he heard every word of an emotionally charged song that leaves nary a dry eye in the sea of humanity that fills Churchill Downs.
"It was emotional and exciting, especially with me being from Kentucky and riding in the big-gest race of my life," Cauthen remembers. "I had a moment to appreciate the glory and glamour."
Retired jockey Pat Day competed in the famed Run for the Roses 22 times. It never grew old. "Without fail," he says, "I had a lump in my throat and tears rolling down my cheeks.
"The Derby is revered as "The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports." It is all of that. It surpasses the drama of the Super Bowl because the hoof-pounding action is com-pressed into such a scintillating time frame. It blows away the leisurely-paced World Series, which can be extended to as many as seven games.
To live, to live fully, is to attend the Derby at least once. It is to see the finest 3-year-old-Thoroughbreds of their generation up close, their magnificent coats gleaming in the sun. To be part of the roar of the crowd when the gate snaps open. To view the scramble as horses vie for position entering the all-important first turn. To appreciate the jockeys' mastery of pace as they nurse eager young mounts through the classic distance of a mile and a quarter, farther than they were ever asked to run before. To take in the wall of sound that inevitably greets the cavalry charge when it turns from home.
No wonder the Derby is at, or near, the top of the bucket list of almost everyone in the United States, if not the world, for it does not take a sports fan to appreciate the "glory and glam-our." The question then becomes not so much whether to attend, but the best way to make it happen.
Increasingly, fans are choosing to go in style. They are taking advantage of more than $69 million in renovations made to the iconic Churchill Downs over the last six years and leaving the planning to QuintEvents, which offers more than 30 Derby Experiences pack-ages at various price points to meet the needs of corporations and individuals.
"They know if we're involved with the program, there is going to be a certain level of quality and a certain attention to detail that they are looking for," says Brian Learst, chief executive officer of QuintEvents (quintevents.com). "That really sets us apart from the com-petition."
Want to rub elbows with the rich and famous at Millionaires' Row? That can be arranged. In fact, at many of the plush settings, celebrities are brought to the customers. Day and Jacinto Vasquez will be readily available for autographs and meet-and-greet sessions this year.
Day achieved one of the Derby's great upsets when he reached the Winner's Circle with Pennsylvania-bred Lil E. Tee in 1992 among nine triumphs in Triple Crown races. Vasquez is a two-time Derby winner, aboard Foolish Pleasure (1975) and the fast filly Genuine Risk (1980).
Want to connect with Pro Football Hall of Famers? This year's list, courtesy of QuintEvents, includes Shannon Sharpe and Thurman Thomas. Sharpe helped to redefine the tight end position as a sure-handed target. Thom-as made an indelible mark at running back with 12,074 rushing yards and 4,458 receiving. The great, 17-year NFL quarterback Warren Moon will also be on hand.
Want a touch of Hollywood? Actresses Nichole Galicia ("Django Unchained") and Christiane Seidel ("Boardwalk Empire") will be mingling. On Friday night, it's the posh Fillies & Lilies Party, which will feature live entertainment following the running of the Kentucky Oaks and be held right on site at the Kentucky Derby Museum.
It is the only Derby-eve social event located on the grounds at Churchill Downs and it is open to the public at $599 per ticket. A portion of the proceeds from the party will benefit the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund was last year's beneficiary.
QuintEvents, established in 2002, draws on its experience at the Super Bowl, the College Football playoffs, the Breeders' Cup, the Belmont Stakes and the NBA All-Star Game, among other prestigious events, to ensure that the memories last a lifetime by offering an array of options. Every program tier offers expedited access to the track, prime seats, private wagering machines and easy access to food and drink. Hassles are eliminated. So is any chance of a bad seat.
Barry Sawayer, president of Louisville-based Trinity Video Communications, has counted on QuintEvents since 2009 to see that major clients and potential customers have an unforgettable time attending the Kentucky Oaks, the premier race for 3-year-old fillies on Friday, and the Derby on Saturday.
"They really facilitate the whole process. They make it easy, and that helps to create the experience we give," Sawayer says. "Sharing a whole two days with customers is really special. That's why we continue to do it."
Sawayer and his guests will take in all of the action from a third-floor balcony overlooking the finish line. He described the seats in one word: "phenomenal." When it is time for refreshment, a buffet and open bar are steps away throughout the day.
Yes, such entertaining comes at a price. But the return in goodwill and new business can be extraordinary. "It's worth every penny I put into it," Sawayer says.
Jim Neuger of Brussels, Belgium, will be at his fourth Derby as part of the Derby Experiences (derbyexperiences.com) program. "They take care of everything, literally," says Neuger. "Tickets, hotel, transport, food and drink, parties, everything. Some are pre-set packages but you have the flexibility to do whatever you want to do." Neuger is especially impressed with the concierge aspect of it. "The staff also pro-vides useful tips on what to do with your spare time in Louisville. Every-thing down to reminding you to wear comfortable shoes because Churchill Downs is a big place."
Churchill Downs officials are so impressed by QuintEvents and the Derby Experiences partnership that they recently invested another $18 million to elevate what already were high-end accommodations. They also signed the first long-term agreement between the parties.
"We're actually modernizing the modernizations," said John Asher, vice president of racing communications, in a press release announcing the latest enhancements. They allowed premium seating capacity to increase 41 percent to 2,660. Total reserved seating now stands at 58,654.
Learst views the unprecedented long-term agreement as a reward for past performance. "From our perspective, we've had seven years of great success with them," he says. "We've sold every tick-et, every hospitality pass, everything they've given us, and we've had flawless customer service and execution."
Learst believes recent developments will allow QuintEvents to take the Derby experience to still greater heights. "It allows us to do things we've never done before. Some of our clients would want multi-year agreements to know they have certain tables or certain access to the track for the next three, four or five years," he says. "If we didn't have a long-term deal with Churchill Downs, we couldn't do that. Now, we can. And we've had clients sign up for all five years as a result."
For some, the Derby will be a once in a lifetime adventure. For countless others, once is not nearly enough.