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Here's How Churchill Downs Is Gearing Up For Derby

Downs Before Derby_7
Churchill Downs 2017

The 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby is just over a week away and preparations are in full swing.

Churchill Downs will welcome hundreds of thousands of fans on the first Saturday in May for the Run for the Roses, and the day before for the Kentucky Oaks.

Today, the gates haven’t been opened to fans yet for the Churchill Downs spring meet, but the place is already buzzing.

The sounds of forklifts, saws and drills fill the air as concession stands, cigar kiosks and other amenities are assembled for the track’s biggest week. Just off the paddock area, boxes of mint are stacked high, destined for the thousands of juleps that will be served.

Amid the bustle, a tour guide teaches a group of school children about the history of the Derby and thoroughbred horses.

“It is organized chaos, but it is a great chaos,” says Churchill Downs spokesman Darren Rogers. “We have about 11,000 employees and vendors, cumulative, come Oaks and Derby Day, and a number of those folks and teams are in place, getting the facility ready, not just for Oaks and Derby but for opening night [on] Saturday night.”

Rogers says visitors will notice some significant changes this year. Churchill Downs has spent $16 million on renovations, including a makeover of the second floor clubhouse.

“We also have, I believe, four times as many ATM machines around the facility, and also four times as many trash cans," he says. "We’ve made a big effort to increase the number of trash cans to every 25 steps or paces around the facility. We also have a recycling movement.”

Out on the racetrack, a few steps away from the hubbub of preparations, it’s quiet. Some of the Derby and Oaks contenders have arrived for workouts. Rogers says the fields for both races will be determined by the middle of next week.

“Entries for the Kentucky Derby will be taken at 10 a.m. on Wednesday and the post position draw is moving this year to 11 a.m.," he says. The change will allow the track to print programs sooner.

Officials are expecting a full field of 20 for the Derby and 14 fillies for the Kentucky Oaks.

This year’s top Derby contenders include Classic Empire, Irish War Cry, McCracken, Always Dreaming and Irap, trained by Doug O’Neill. O’Neill won last year’s race with Nyquist.

Listen to the sounds of Derby prep in the audio player above.

Rick Howlett is host of WFPL's weekly talk show, "In Conversation." Email Rick at rhowlett@lpm.org.