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After floods, museum rebuilt around the "Derby experience"

LOUISVILLE — Nearly two years after a flood caused it to close for nine months, the Kentucky Derby Museum has got its groove back.

Attendance is about equal to what it was before the Aug. 4, 2009, flood, which is saying something in an economy in which Americans pinch their entertainment dollars.

The museum has reconnected with Derby owners, trainers, jockeys and others in the horse industry to ensure the museum's future success. And the public seems pleased by the museum's emphasis on telling what the Derby is like through interactive technology.

Take, for example, Matt Yoder, a young father from New Philadelphia, Ohio, making his first visit to the museum with daughters Ella, 6, and Elena, 2.

The two girls were fascinated with "Riders Up," an exhibit in which they mounted faux Thoroughbreds facing video screens and then "raced" the horses around a virtual Churchill Downs track. By using their thumbs, they navigated their horses in and out along the rail.

"It's good interaction for the kids to actually sit on a horse because that's what they want to do, even though it's not a real one," Yoder said. As for the museum itself, he said, "I didn't think it would be nearly this big, and there are a lot of things to see and do."

Yoder's off-the-cuff review is music to the ears of staff members such as Wendy Treinen, the museum's director of communications.

"We've changed our mind-set from an educational institution to a place that shares the fun of the Derby experience," Treinen said.

That's what the museum's administration had planned to do before the 2009 deluge. The museum, which opened in 1985, had expected to renovate in 2012, and the flood just accelerated that process, said Executive Director Lynn Ashton.

"So if you're going to have a disaster, we kind of had it at the right time," Ashton said.

On the morning of Aug. 4, 2009, then-curator Katherine Veitschegger noticed water dripping from the ceiling onto her desk in the museum's basement.

She radioed the staff to bring her a caulk gun, thinking it was a trickle that would be easily fixed. Before long, though, she radioed her need for buckets.

Six inches of rain fell in an hour. (By comparison, a little more than 5 inches fell in parts of Fayette County April 21-28 this year.)

Water flooded the streets and the parking lot outside the museum. Visitors and museum employees watched helplessly as water rose into their vehicles.

Inside the museum, water poured through ceiling tiles in the basement. Toilets and sink drains began to bubble up and spew sewage water like geysers. More than 10 inches of water filled the basement where the museum housed many artifacts and archival papers not on display.

The museum staff formed a human chain to move priceless, one-of-a-kind artifacts — such as the riding crop used by a winning Derby jockey — to higher ground. More than 2,000 pieces — of about 10,000 in the collection — were removed during the flood.

Nearly 2,500 items — including photos, historic newspaper clippings, race meet programs, racing forms and other historical records — were lost but were not considered irreplaceable. Many documents were put into freezers so mold and mildew wouldn't grow on the damp papers.

The damage and cleanup costs hit more than $4 million. Insurance covered about $800,000. But financial support from the J. Graham Brown Foundation, corporate sponsors, horse farms and many others helped to pay for a $5.5 million renovation.

The overall footprint of the museum was not expanded, but several walls inside were altered so that there was more square footage for exhibit space. And nearly every exhibit was affected by the redesign so that it fit into the mission to "share the fun of the Kentucky Derby experience."

Some content within the exhibits would remain but be presented in a more interactive way. New exhibits about the infield experience, fashion and the life of a horse from foal to race contender took a deeper look into what the Derby was about.

The museum conducted 10,000 hours of interviews to collect personal Derby memories for the "It's My Derby Project."

Treinen, the museum spokeswoman, explained: "Derby history doesn't belong to us. It doesn't belong to Churchill Downs. It's a special thing that each person holds in their heart. And this gave us an opportunity to collect those great stories."

For example, the great-niece of jockey Roscoe Goose told how he rode Donerail a couple of miles from another track to Churchill Downs in 1913. Donerail went on to become the longest long shot in Derby history, paying $184.90 to win on a $2 ticket, a record that stands today.

And Elliott Walden, a former trainer and now president, CEO and racing manager of Winstar Farm in Woodford County, recalls his first Derby in 1979, when he was a guest of Thoroughbred owners Bert and Diana Firestone (no relation to the tire family) and sat in a box with them and another guest — Elizabeth Taylor.

"I remember the day being very, very busy because there were so many people coming by the box to speak to her, and I just wanted to watch the horses," Walden said in a memory captured in writing in one exhibit.

Nearby there's an interactive Churchill Downs map in which you touch a spot and then use an "audio wand" to listen to a person who tells what they see from that perspective. If you select the backside, you will hear Mike Pegram, owner of 1998 Derby winner Real Quiet, tell what's going on there.

There's also a Derby IQ game in which the faster you answer questions about race-related trivia, the more quickly your horse advances around a track.

The museum's highest annual attendance before the flood was 217,467 in 2007. In the year since the museum reopened on April 18, 2010, attendance was about 200,000.

"It's not the record-breaking numbers we had hoped, but we've been a little better than average," Treinen said. "But we've seen a higher local turnout than we had before, and that's important because a lot of people feel once they visit a museum, they don't have to come back."

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