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Keeneland offers the Derby rush without the Churchill crush

For those who love the Kentucky Derby but groan at the large crowds at Churchill Downs, Keeneland racetrack in Lexington has become a nice alternative. Since the track began organizing Derby Day festivities in 1995, the response has been so positive, it has added more and more events.

And other tracks nationwide promote similar Derby events, all hoping to draw in the elusive casual fan on racing's biggest day.

Keeneland spokeswoman Julie Balog remembers how the initial Derby gatherings at the Versailles Road track were more like picnics.

"People would bring in their food and drink," she said.

"Realizing that this was growing into something, we decided to put some organization behind it, and it has grown through the years to the point where we bill it as the 'World's Largest Derby Party.' "

The early years saw attendance between 10,000 and 15,000, but nowadays it's routine to see more than 20,000 at the track.

"It mirrors an actual race day," Balog said. "The club is open. The rooms are open. We've added children's activities like face painting and pony rides.

"And there's the hat contest. We used to have just a few people who participated. Last year, it was a rather rainy Derby for us, and we still had about 60 people who participated."

The day is staffed just like a regular race day, an enormous commitment by the track given the number of workers.

"The goal on a day like Derby is about showcasing a great day of racing, entertaining guests and showing them what is great about the sport," Balog said.

While Keeneland may be a standout for its Derby festivities, it's by no means the only track to celebrate the big race.

"Other racetracks from coast to coast know that the Kentucky Derby is generally their biggest day of the year unless they have another Triple Crown event or another super Grade I race on their schedule," said Eric Wing, spokesman for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. "They know people are going to be interested in betting, and they want people to come out and do it at their facility."

Wing said pony rides and backstretch tours are popular options at tracks, as well as live music.

Arlington Park, a Chicago-area track owned by Churchill Downs, was so interested in celebrating the Derby that it received permission several years ago to open its meet on the first Saturday in May instead of its typical Mother's Day start.

"For casual fans who might not otherwise think about horse racing ... where better is there to have a Kentucky Derby party than a track that has live racing?" said track spokesman David Zenner.

"Just like Churchill Downs, we will see a lot of people here dressed to the nines and in hats and drinking mint juleps," he said. "We try to create as much of the Kentucky Derby experience here as possible."

Billing the event as "Chicagoland's Largest Kentucky Derby Party," Arlington is debuting a new offering this year called the Derby Party Zone. Promoting it as an "exclusive red carpet experience," the zone has an all-inclusive food and drink package.

It's yet another way to pull in fans, and there's no better day to be marketing than Derby Day, said the NTRA's Wing.

"It's so big that tracks would be silly to ignore it," he said. "For a racing fan, as great as it might be to watch it on television ... a true racing fan finds it extra special to be at the track on Kentucky Derby Day, even if it's not Churchill Downs."

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