HOLY GRAIL: Tell a good story, and these could be yours. That story probably doesn't involve a gold go-go outfit.
Photo by Brian Bohannon, reprinted with permission of Louisville Eccentric Observer
"We need patrons every day," Shellman explained, "not just at the Derby and the Oaks. Those days are never an attendance problem, but you know what it's like here the Wednesday after Derby. We need people out there in the stands. So the box-holders are being watched. We want the boxes to be used by friends, family and clients, and we reward usage by the placement of seating during the big races. Maybe years ago who you were and who you knew had a bearing, but not any more. Attendance at these races has grown enormously over the past decade, and especially during the past five years, so we have to keep things as impartial as we can."
In other words, if you buy a season box with the sole purpose of attending the Derby, the big day may find you in a box at the far end of the grandstand, over beside the planet Mars. If you use your box all the time, you might find yourself looking down on the finish line. With a total of about 1,600 boxes, the additional 200 are set aside for Derby owners and trainers. In fact, these same boxes are available on normal race days, and generally there are enough to accommodate all who want them.
As for the other reserved seating, Shellman notes: "We don't 'give' tickets. We extend invitations, and in most cases those are based on continued interest. If you write every year and you're willing to come to the Derby and sit outside, you'll probably get seats within two or three years. Once you've been invited, we invite you to write back again and retain your seats. There's no guarantee, but we do out best. We'll probably let you come three or four years, and then we un-invite you, which allows us to bring in new people. There has to be a turnover."
"When people want particular seats," she went on, "or they have conditions, like it has to be under cover, the wait can be longer. And the truth is, some of the bleacher seats are really good. You can see the race, and you can see the horses at the start and finish. One time, we offered an invitation to someone and he sent back a letter saying that he was a doctor and didn't want to sit in the bleachers with everybody else. Can you imagine? Once they refuse - let me put it this way - they don't automatically get moved to a better location."
Shellman has been in her current position for three years, and she clearly enjoys the racing business - the shelves in her office are packed with souvenirs of past Derbies, including photographs of herself with various horseracing notables. But she has worked in the Special Events office since arriving at Churchill Downs in 1988, so she's heard just about every story in the book and seen just about every possible ticket scam. Maybe you think you have a new idea, but frankly, you'd probably just be wasting your time.
This article originally appeared in the May 2, 2001 issue of the Louisville Eccentric Observer, reprinted with permission.
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