As the general manager of Churchill Downs, Ryan J. Jordan uses his expertise to propel the greatest event in horse racing.From the hats to the mint juleps to, oh, yes, even the horse racing, the Kentucky Derby is one of the most famous sporting events in the country. But as the pomp and pageantry suggest, it is so much more than that — the Derby is, and always has been, as much about the fashion and the socializing as it is about the race itself. This fact is not lost on Churchill Downs general manager Ryan J. Jordan and his staff, who have just completed a $14.5 million renovation of the venue, which added 51,000 square feet of new space — including 2,400 new seats in the Grandstand Terrace and a Rooftop Terrace for VIP guests. Also new this race season is the Panasonic Big Board, a 90-foot-wide and 171-foot-tall 4K (ultrahigh resolution) video board that’s the largest of its kind in the world. Meaning, despite its 140-year history, the Kentucky Derby is still every bit the modern event.
American Way: Since 2012, you’ve served as general manager of Churchill Downs. What does your job entail on a day-to-day basis?
Ryan J. Jordan: It changes every day, but I’m responsible for the management of all activities, which for the past few months has included a lot of construction management. But it’s my job to position Churchill Downs to be relevant to today and tomorrow’s customers.
AW: When people think of Churchill Downs, they automatically think of the Derby, but you have races and events there year-round.
RJ: Yes, we have 73 other race days, but the Derby is everything to us. It’s our Super Bowl. Planning begins several years in advance, so we’re already working on 2015, ’16 and ’17.
AW: What do the renovations mean for the track and the event?
RJ: When you attend any major sporting event, you spend most of your time watching the competition. But for us, you have 20 minutes of competition throughout the entire day — which is why so much of Derby Day is about socializing and entertainment. So, we’re creating spaces conducive to just that. Also, some of our construction was built as long ago as the 1920s, so a lot of this renovation is just adding additional restrooms and concession stands.
AW: What can guests expect from the new video board?
RJ: Just like at an NBA game, where you’ll see the starting lineup, time-outs, the kiss cam and other things to fill the time, this technology gives us the opportunity to change the way the Derby is presented. We generate a lot of data with horse racing, and we will use that data to help fans understand and learn, and we’ll supplement what’s happening on the track using social media, live polls and the like. Plus, since it’s 15,224 square feet — roughly the size of two NBA courts — it’s visible from every seat we have in the Clubhouse and Grandstand, so the screen will be a place where you can keep up with the race.
AW: This year there is a staggering $2 million purse. How does that affect the sport?
RJ: When you think of these people who have been in the sport for so long, it really transcends the monetary value [for them]. If you ask the winners, many of them will tell you the purse isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. It’s a lifelong achievement. The odds of getting into the Derby and then winning — it’s one of those things that kind of takes you back a little bit.
AW: Dramatic hats are synonymous with the Derby. Is that successful marketing on your part?
RJ: That isn’t something that we’ve been able to fabricate. It’s organic and has built up over time. I think it harkens back to the elegance of the old days of horse racing. It’s a nostalgic fashion that transcends time, and it’s that fashion aspect and the social nature that are so entwined with the Derby.
The Kentucky Derby By the Numbers
120,000: The number of mint juleps served at the 2013 Derby
3: The number of fillies that have won the Derby (the most recent was in 1988)
165,307: The highest number of attendees ever for the event (2012)
$187 million: The most money ever wagered on race day (2012)
190: The number of full-time employees at Churchill Downs
11,500: The number of employees at Churchill Downs on Derby Day
The 2014 Kentucky Derby takes place Saturday, May 3, at 4 p.m. EDT, with live coverage beginning at 11 a.m. EDT on NBC. For more information on the Derby and Churchill Downs, visit www.churchilldowns.com