Opening night at the track — dry, and dry

Churchill Downs — Opening Night, April 30th, 2011
Churchill Downs — Opening Night, April 30th, 2011

Over the years I’ve attended several Derbys, as well as many non-Derby events and race days. I usually come away with a smile on my face, a pocketful of worthless tickets, far less money than I brought, and a slight bourbon buzz. On opening night last Saturday, I came away with a look of frustration, no tickets, just about as much money as I had in my wallet when I arrived and definitely, absolutely, no bourbon buzz.

The evening started out great. The weather was perfect, I was with a beautiful date who had heeded the dress code for the evening, Cocktail Chic, and I purchased tickets online and was able to print them! (I recall buying Churchill Downs tickets online in the past, but after paying then finding out that I can’t print them, but have to wait in line to pick them up — which is like a bad trick to me.) The traffic flowed smoothly and the $10 parking spot I found, after giving the guy holding a sign a ride on the hood of my car, was right next to the track.

Once inside, our plan was to study the Horses at the paddock, grab a drink, place a bet and watch the first race from the general admission area before heading up to our box seats. Then, to sort of repeat that pattern throughout the evening, particularly the part about grabbing a drink and placing a bet. Everything was going smashingly till it came time to get the drink. You see, I like Mint Juleps. And, I had convinced my date that she would, too. She is from another country, and had never had one and was really looking forward to the drink and the souvenir glass. It turns out that finding a Mint Julep at Churchill Downs is like picking winner on a sloppy track. They are hard to find, and you have to wait for them once you do.

Starting Gate Bar
These lines DO NOT serve Mint Juleps.

My first attempt was to wait in the line at the Starting Gate Bar & Snacks (which is a real misnomer) area near the paddock. I was about 10 people back when I entered the line with 16 MTP (minutes to post). I mistakenly thought I’d be able to grab a couple of drinks, place a bet and scramble outside to watch my Horse nose out the others at the finish line. At about 2 MTP, without a bet, and still 4 people back from the window I decided we should bail the line and go watch the race, which we did. My Horse finished third, which means I would have donated $10 to the track, and so I felt a little better that the line had held me up enough to save some money.

Starting Gate Bar
This line DOES NOT serve Mint Juleps. Or, maybe it does? Let me check the sign over the window. Oh, there's not one!

Being the determined person that I am, at least when it comes to procuring a Mint Julep, I decided we should go right back to the line after the race, THEN watch the Horses and THEN place our bet this time. So, we re-entered the line, about 10 people back. After about 12 minutes, we got to the window, only to find out that THIS window doesn’t serve Mint Juleps!

“What do you mean you don’t serve Mint Juleps?!” I gasped.

“No sir, you have to go to the window at the other end.”

“But you are all standing in there together, next to each other. Can’t you just grab one from the person next to you?”

“No sir, I’m sorry. You have to go to the other window.”

“Ahhhhhhhh! Ok, give me two brats.”

Starting Gate Bar
I "think" this is the line that serves Mint Juleps. But I'm not sure. Let me wait in line 15 minutes and miss the next race to find out.

So, instead of drinking bourbon, we ate brats. And, by the time we dressed and ate our brats it was about 5 MTP. We jumped in the “other line” and waited anxiously, without moving from 12 people back for the next 3 minutes, until we decided to bail again and go watch the next race — without a bet.

Then we came back in and decided to try our luck on the third floor, where our box seats were. We were able to maneuver quickly, and made our way to the 2nd floor Horseshoe bar en route to the 3rd floor, and got in line for the prized possession of the night — the elusive Mint Julep. We were only 8 people back this time and there were three bartenders all scurrying around so I felt for certain that with 12 MTP we’d be able to buy a Julep, and guess at a ticket and watch the race from the box seats.

Horseshoe-Bar.jpg”>Horseshoe Bar” src=”×150.jpg” alt=”Horseshoe Bar” width=”150″ height=”150″ />
1 drink every 4 minutes, I don't like those odds.

No such luck. We ended up watching the third race from the line at the bar, which was moving at the mind bending speed of about 1 customer every 4 minutes.

Eventually, we did place our order for two Mint Juleps. However, must to my dismay, our bartender happened to be a direct descendant of Ebenezer Scrooge. He carefully measured out the exact amount of bourbon (only instead of pouring a little extra into the shot measure and into the glass he erred the other direction and cheated me out of a sip or two).

Mint Julep
You call that a Mint Julep?

Then, he carefully added the exact amount of Julep mix, filled it with ice and as an after thought jammed a sprig of mint in the glass. It was the most disappointingly anemic looking Mint Julep I’ve ever seen. I’m used to the ones that the rocket guys sell on Derby day where bourbon, simple syrup, ice and mint are all jumbling around and spilling over like there’s not a care in the world. Even though it was skimpy, we did enjoy our Juleps while watching a race. Oh, and we even were able to place a bet.

Then I made the mistake of trying to buy another Julep back at the Starting Gate Bar & Snacks in the paddock area only to find out that the new line that had opened on the far right is also NOT a Mint Julep line. You see at first there were three lines and the server in the first line said go to the other end. When I got back down stairs there were 4 lines. I ignorantly assumed that the 3rd and now 4th line would both serve Juleps, since they shared the same sign over their windows. NOT. Once again, I waited 14 minutes in line to be told we don’t serve Juleps from this window. Only beer and food. “What about the drink I saw somebody just walk away with in a Julep cup?” I cried. “Oh, that was just a refill with soda. You need to get in the line next to this one.” I was instructed. By this point, I was so frustrated with the whole scene that I had to go somewhere that knows how to run a bar and so we left the track after the ninth race.

In retrospect it was a good evening. I ended up getting points with my date for taking her to the track and buying her one Mint Julep — even though it was just one. I spent a whole lot less money there than I had planned, and we managed to find a place that actually wanted to make money at their bar, and were able to get a buzz and dance.

My advice to Churchill Downs is this:

  • If you want to limit your sale of Mint Juleps keep them scarce and keep your signage the same. DO NOT put signs directly over the windows explaining what they sell in that line. Keep them just like they are.
  • If you want to limit the sale of race tickets keep your bars the same. DO NOT hire bar backs who can prepare the drinks and let the cashiers at the windows sell them. That will speed things up way too much. People will have too much time to do other things like bet on races.
  • If you want to make less money, then don’t change a thing. I’ve noticed that casinos actually give drinks away. You see they know this dirty little trick that getting folks buzzed makes them less logical and gets them to throw away money on stupid things like gambling and Horse racing. You are in the unique position where you can sell the drinks and make money that way, AND also to make money on the risky gambling that results from the effects of alcohol. So, as long as you sell 1 drink every 4 minutes to a crowd of 38,000 plus people you’ll never have to worry about counting too much cash.
  • Last thing — look the other way next time I come to the track, because next time I won’t leave my buzz in your hands and I’ll be sporting my own little stash. Fool me once shame on you… fool me twice shame on me.

Churchill Downs