Churchill Downs announces plans for new suites catering to owners of Kentucky Derby horses

Churchill Downs announced plans Wednesday to develop trackside suites for the owners of horses running in the Kentucky Derby, hoping to rein in criticism that arose when a Derby winner's co-owner lashed out at the track over its hospitality.

The $4.2 million project includes construction of 20 private, open-air Winner's Circle Suites in a prime spot under the Twin Spires between the sixteenth pole and finish line, the track said.

Suites will offer covered seating with easy access to the racetrack and paddock runway. Full-service hospitality will be available, including an open bar and gourmet food.

Churchill also said the number of complimentary tickets will be tripled to 18 for all participating horse owners in the Derby and Kentucky Oaks, the race for 3-year-old fillies the day before the Derby.

Track President Kevin Flanery said the new suites are "where anyone who has ever owned or dreamed of owning a racehorse wants to be."

The project comes several months after Steve Coburn, co-owner of this year's Derby and Preakness winner, California Chrome, lashed out at Churchill after the Preakness, which is held at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

"Churchill Downs needs to call Maryland to get a lesson in hospitality," Coburn said. "These people right here, they've treated us like royalty."

Coburn went on to say "the hospitality we received at Churchill Downs wasn't very good."

Churchill was aware of criticism from some horse owners, while others were more complimentary, track spokesman Darren Rogers said Wednesday.

"It is fair to say that the input from owners — positive or critical — was among the factors that motivated us," he said.

In the past, owners of Derby and Oaks horses received a complimentary six-person box in a section also between the sixteenth pole and finish line. Owners had the opportunity to purchase two additional boxes in the same section. Food and beverages were available in another area.

The project also includes a remodeled trackside winner's circle and creation of a courtyard featuring more than 600 temporary premium seats during Derby Week.

Those seats will go for about $1,200 apiece as a Derby and Oaks package, Rogers said.

Construction will start in December and be complete before next year's spring meet.

The investment is the latest in a series of track upgrades in the past decade — totaling more than $178 million. Projects included renovating the clubhouse and grandstand, installing permanent lights, creating a new VIP section known as The Mansion and installing of a gigantic video board.