By Marty Rosen
Back in the old days, the word “museum” might have conjured up images of stuffy exhibit halls, dim lights and dusty glass cases filled with ancient artifacts.
Not anymore. And definitely not at the Kentucky Derby Museum.
Located just outside the main entrance to legendary Churchill Downs in Louisville, the museum has always been a fun place to explore. But after a 2009 flood wreaked havoc on its main floor exhibits, the facility underwent jaw-dropping renovations.
As a longtime Derby fan, I had to check it out.
An Unbelievable New Experience
Before my visit to the new-and-improved museum, I’d already had plenty of Derby experience. As a racing fan, I’ve spent countless hours at Churchill Downs. As a journalist, I’ve been lucky enough to get “up close and personal” with horses, trainers and jockeys during the run up to the First Saturday in May.
But even so, the Kentucky Derby Museum gave me a chance to do things I’d never imagined. I discovered a cutting edge institution featuring stunning state-of-the-art technology that immersed me into the sights and sounds, the mystery and majesty of thoroughbred racing at its highest level.
I began my visit in the museum’s Great Hall, a 360-degree movie theater where the “The Greatest Race” magically distills the essence of Derby Day into a 17-minute film. It begins quietly in the pre-dawn silence of the backside, then takes viewers on a whirlwind tour of the paddock, the chaotic parties in the infield, the heartfelt singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” and culminates in that thunderous run down the stretch, ending with tears and laughter in the Winner’s Circle.
Something for Everyone
In its galleries and exhibits, the museum offers something for everyone.
There’s an introduction to the art of horseshoeing. Colorful displays highlight the glamorous (and sometimes downright hilarious) hats and gowns worn by the fashionistas who frequent Millionaires Row. Films highlight great Derby races from as far back as 1918. Exhibits shed light on the rich diversity of the men and women – African-Americans, Hispanics, Caucasians – who have shaped the Kentucky Derby and American horse racing.
But in terms of sheer fun, it’s the interactive experiences and guided tours that will bowl you over.
Interactive Experiences & Tours
I’ve always marveled at how skillfully track announcers call a race. Here, I was able to try it myself – and after listening to my own performance was even more impressed by those who do it so well. At another booth, I mounted a model horse, tried to mimic a jockey’s stance and steered my horse on video from the starting gate and through the turns – until I found myself boxed in on the stretch with no way out.
Later, on the free tour that’s included with museum admission, I toured the grounds, met a retired thoroughbred (and a miniature horse named Winston) and walked on the hallowed racetrack itself.
Finally, I finished up with a “Behind the Scenes” tour, where a knowledgeable, engaging guide led us through the Jockeys Locker Room and exercise facilities, where the youngsters among us were bold enough to step on the scales and mount the simulation horse that jockeys use to warm up and work on riding techniques. Then they took us through the gilded splendor of Millionaires Row, and finished with a literal high point: a visit to the broadcast booth mounted high above the finish line where TV announcers call the most famous horse race in the world.
The Kentucky Derby has long been known as “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports.” And after a fun- and fact-filled afternoon at the Kentucky Derby Museum, I dubbed my visit “The Fastest Four Hours I’ve Ever Spent in a Museum.”
Time really does fly when you’re having this much fun.
For more information, call 502-637-7097 or visit www.derbymuseum.org.
If You Go
- LOCATION: The Kentucky Derby Museum is located at 704 Central Avenue, next to the main entrance to Churchill Downs in Louisville.
- HOURS: It is open seven days a week (except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, Kentucky Derby and Oaks Day). From March 15 through Nov. 30, hours are Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. From Dec. 1 through March 14, hours are Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- ADMISSION: Admission is $13 adults, $12 for seniors 55 and older, $11 for ages 13-18 and $5 for ages 5-12. Children under 5 are free.
- PARKING: Free parking is available in front of the museum, except on racing days.
- GIFT SHOP: The Kentucky Derby Museum Gift Shop offers a wide range of gifts, books and collectables.
- DINING: Soups, salads and sandwiches – including a classic Kentucky Hot Brown – are available at the Derby Café daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Limited menu on weekends.) A few blocks from the track, Wagner’s Pharmacy has been dishing up hearty breakfasts and lunches for trackmen since 1922. (3113 S. Fourth Street, 502-375-3800, www.wagnerspharmacy.com)
- MORE INFORMATION: 502-637-7097, www.derbymuseum.org