Cindy's Horse Racing Website Index

Lee Ann Shellman - Ducat Diva
How Kentucky Derby Tickets are Really Distributed

by Bruce Nixon
Reprinted with permission of Louisville Eccentric Observer

"I guess I've heard just about everything."
Photo by Brian Bohannon, reprinted with permission of Louisville Eccentric Observer
At some point in any explanation of the Kentucky Derby ticket allocation process, words must fail. After all, how do you convey the combination of enormity, responsibility and just plain weirdness that goes with the job of choosing who gets Derby tickets and who doesn't. When that point arrived this spring, Lee Ann Shellman rose abruptly from behind her desk and disappeared into a room adjoining her office to return a few moments later with fistfuls of letters.

"Here," she said, shoving piles of paper across an already rather cluttered desktop. "Take a look at these. They'll give you an idea of what it's like."

Then she reached for her beeping telephone to take a call.

It would be erroneous to imply that confusion reigns within the walls of this handsomely paneled room whose window looks across the open field of concrete behind Gate 1. As director of special events, Shellman does, indeed, handle a staggering 50,000 requests for tickets each year; during the two weeks following the Derby, the deluge of requests for the next year flows at a rate of 1,000 a day. Her office responds to these requests by sending back a form. When the forms return to Churchill Downs, their information goes into a data bank, which will then be tracked for a number of seasons to come, since three or four yearly requests may be necessary before the applicant - oh, let's be honest, the supplicant - is finally bestowed with an invitation to purchase tickets.

But the numbers tell only half the story, maybe even less. Many requests carry a special urgency - those pleas, as Shellman explained, "that tug at your heartstrings." For some, Derby Day marks a wedding anniversary. Or maybe attendance is a lifelong dream. Or aspirants send pictures of themselves holding their dog, or a funny sign. Others still make a request on behalf of, say, a dying relative. Those get notched on the way into the computer, since Shellman has seen people make the same plea for a number of consecutive years. She shook her head: "Can you imagine someone treating a thing like that so lightly? They don't get tickets."

On the other hand, what do you expect? Churchill Downs has about 48,500 seats, including the boxes, for an event that generally draws about a crowd of more than 150,000. Even after you eliminate all those hardy and possibly not quite sober souls who voluntarily choose the infield, that leaves a lot of people looking for a place to rest their weary bones.

And this isn't even the only responsibility of the two-person Special Events office.

Along with the other high-volume races - the Kentucky Oaks and the Breeders' Cup - Shellman looks after the season box-holders, who pay $2,250 for the privilege of occupying a six-seat chamber on the third tier of the grandstand, but whose attendance must be tracked throughout a racing season.

Whew. No wonder she keeps a set of rollerblades and a workout suit in her office - in a corner where she can grab them on her way out the door.

This article originally appeared in the May 2, 2001 issue of the Louisville Eccentric Observer, reprinted with permission.

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