Ahead of a major renovation, here’s a look at the Churchill Downs paddock throughout history

Published: May. 3, 2023 at 10:07 AM EDT|Updated: May. 3, 2023 at 10:23 AM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - As long as there has been the Kentucky Derby at the racetrack in Louisville, there has been a paddock. But its existence is the only constant; everything else about the structure has changed over the past 149 years. Currently, the area is undergoing yet another major renovation ahead of Derby 150 in 2024. That means Derby-goers in 2023 will enjoy a temporary paddock area.

Looking back at Churchill’s history, the paddock has undergone many renovations, large and small, all while hosting horses for the public’s first look on Derby Day.

“The paddock is where you come and you see those horses up close and personal,” said Jessica Whitehead, the Kentucky Derby Museum’s curator of collections. “It’s where we hear the famous ‘Riders up!’ call before a major race.”

When the then-titled Louisville Jockey Club was built in 1875, the paddock was a simple structure on the southern side (now called the backside) of the track. If you wanted to see horses saddle up there, there was an extra fee. Near the turn of the century, the paddock was moved to the north side of the track – the side where it resides still – and rebuilt as a wooden structure. It was placed next to the betting shed.

In 1917, Matt Winn (known as “Mr. Derby” for the Churchill-saving changes he made) decided to include access to the paddock in the general admission price. With that, a Churchill tradition was solidified.

“Sort of make your last guesses for who’s going to be winning that race,” said Whitehead. Then, fans would take that guess next door to the betting shed to put money on it.

In 1922, the wooden paddock was scrapped and remade in steel. It was made to last, and did for about 60 years. Over those decades, the steel structure saw only minor changes in location along the north side of the track. Those decades also saw the creation of a walkway and then a tunnel for crowd control. Furthermore, the tote board was upgraded several times with more and more advanced technology.

In 1986, the longtime steel paddock was retired as paddock. However, for several years, it still stood, used as a picnic area and beer garden.

“People munching on sandwiches and having a good time,” Whitehead said. “Drinking a nice little Bud Light there in the old paddock.”

Meanwhile, 1986′s new paddock was built to be the plaza experience Derby-goers enjoyed through 2022. Now, ahead of Kentucky Derby 150, construction continues on the $200 million paddock redesign–a redesign vying for its own place in Churchill history.

“This is definitely the most special of all of them,” said Whitehead. Not least of all, she explains, because this redesign will reveal history itself, including the facades of the 1895 grandstand, the revival brick arches, and some original roundels with “Jockey Club” insignia.

“Not only are we getting to see new architecture, we’re getting to revisit this old architecture that’s just so beautiful,” Whitehead said.