Kentucky Derby Day: How Hollywood Does Churchill Downs

Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs_2 - Getty - H 2018
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Where actors and athletes will hang out to catch the 144th Run for the Roses — plus, a recipe for the perfect mint julep.

One Kentucky Derby experience is so exclusive, some employees have no idea how to get there. “I’m not even sure I can tell you where the door is — it’s definitely a secret entrance,” says David Danielson, executive chef for Churchill Downs, where the highest-profile horse race in the U.S. goes off Saturday.

Of all the premium venues at this historic Louisville, Kentucky, racetrack, The Speakeasy is the smallest and, as its name implies, hardest to find, and that’s by design. At just 14 seats and 400 square feet, the plush, intimate lounge with leather winged-back chairs features a wood bar with its own personal bartender. It can only be accessed via an invitation from Churchill Downs Racetrack president Kevin Flanery.

“The Speakeasy was created for guests of the track who perhaps need to get away for a few minutes, sit down and relax, and enjoy a bit of real privacy," says Danielson.

The marriage of celebrities and horse racing is as old as Hollywood itself. Seabiscuit producer Steven Spielberg was among the owners of the horse Atswhatimtalkingabout, which came in fourth in the 2003 Kentucky Derby. Former MGM chairman and CEO Gary Barber, meanwhile, owns a horse that came in second at Friday’s $1 million Longines Kentucky Oaks race. The 3-year-old filly’s name? Wonder Gadot, christened in honor of Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot. And one of the thoroughbreds running Saturday, named Audible, is backed by Amazon.

Before Saturday’s 6:34 p.m. ET post time, you’re sure to find plenty of A-listers mingling among the more than 165,000 people attending the 144th annual Kentucky Derby. Ty Burrell, Blair Underwood, Aisha Tyler, Taylor Kitsch, Mira Sorvino, Ray Liotta and NBC commentators Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir are among those expected to walk the red carpet before heading to their favorite venues to watch the marquee race, which will feature 20 horses competing for a $2 million prize. 

One of the hottest spots, surprisingly, isn’t among the most private: the members-only Turf Club, with a capacity of 2,000 people, located on the third floor clubhouse level, with a prime view of the finish line. On Friday afternoon, guests spotted there included NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a healthy contingent of his fellow Green Bay Packers.

“Athletes love the Turf Club,” Danielson says. “It’s a big party.” Tom Brady and fellow New England Patriot Rob Gronkowski also have been spotted in recent years. (In 2017, Gronkowski purchased a minority stake in a horse that had been named after him, but “Gronk,” as the colt is known, had to drop out of Derby contention in late April due to illness.)

For a more exclusive experience, an unmarked wooden door, flanked by two security guards, leads invited guests to the sixth-floor Mansion. With a capacity of only 300, this expansive indoor/outdoor suite with balconies is where you’ll find sponsors like Longines — the official timekeeper of the Triple Crown, the watch brand awards specially designed timepieces to the owner, trainer and jockey of its sanctioned races — as well as Coca-Cola, Corona and others with their VIP guests. (Rumor has it that not even Brady’s famous face could get him into The Mansion one year; he needed the intervention of a sponsor to gain access.) Stevie Wonder is among the attendees expected to be spotted in The Mansion on Derby Day.

Danielson, who co-authored The Bourbon Country Cookbook: New Southern Entertaining (Agate Surrey, $29.95), set for release on Tuesday, plans a total of 28 menus for Derby Week. Each culinary experience is expected to be unique to that venue, from the homemade beef jerky and fried chicharron with pimento that are part of the “handcrafted, lovingly made” menu of bar snacks at The Speakeasy, to the buffet at The Mansion, which this year features Tiffani Faison from the Boston restaurant Tiger Mama and David Wressell, executive pastry chef of Guittard Chocolate Company, based in Burlingame, California, near San Francisco.

“Tiffany will do three different lunch items each day, while David offers hot chocolate and pastries in the morning, then ice-cream sundaes and chocolate-dipped strawberries in the afternoon — we like to present a sweet side and a savory side from our celebrity chefs,” Danielson says.

At the Turf Club, Danielson says the trick is to plan dishes that feel personalized while also being able to quickly accommodate a large-scale crowd. “We’ve got wood-burning ovens in there, so we’ll do something like roasted oysters,” he says. Asked to name his favorite venue, Danielson points to the Skye Terraces, which he says attracts celebrities and professional gamblers alike. “Those rooms have a different sight line, because they curve off and allow you to see straight down the stretch,” he explains.

Cocktails are planned with equal attention to detail, starting with the most iconic of Derby drinks, the mint julep, crafted of Kentucky-made bourbon and Kentucky grown mint (more than 1,000 lbs. of mint are brought in for Derby Week from Dohn & Dohn Gardens, also located in Louisville and the exclusive provider of the spearmint used for juleps at Churchill Downs). By Saturday’s end, the racetrack will have served roughly 127,000 of the bourbon-and-mint concoctions, which is no easy feat, says Dillon Kelley, a Chicago-based mixologist who has worked the Kentucky Derby for four years. To accommodate crowds in the Grandstand and other general-seating venues, mint juleps are “batched” — bar-speak for made in large quantities — so they can be poured and served quickly, but not so at The Mansion or other VIP areas like the private suites of Millionaires’ Row.

“In the more exclusive areas, every mint julep is done by hand, in the most traditional way,” Kelley says. The Mansion also offers a quintet of cocktails you won’t find in other Churchill Downs venues, including the Kentucky 85, which Kelley calls “a cool riff on a French 75: We use bourbon instead of cognac, a little lime juice instead of lemon, and just a few drops of absinthe to make it a bit more sophisticated.”

If you couldn’t make it to Louisville this year, you can still hoist a mint julep at race time, a tradition in The Mansion. “Everyone has to be holding one when the Derby race starts, so right beforehand our bar staff has an assembly line going to make sure every guest is holding a fresh drink,” Kelley says.

Here’s the official Churchill Downs recipe, with a couple of tips from Kelley on how to craft a perfect Derby Day cocktail:

Kentucky Derby Mint Julep

2 oz. bourbon (Woodford Reserve or Old Forester are recommended as the event’s official whiskeys)
½ oz. simple syrup
Plenty of crushed ice
A bouquet of fresh Kentucky mint leaves

Kelley starts by crushing three mint leaves between his hands. “You get a nice oil expression and really get the flavor and the aroma going,” he says. Place the mint in the bottom of a julep cup, then fill three-quarters to the top with crushed ice. Pour in the simple syrup, then the bourbon; stir rapidly to add a frost to the outside of the glass, then add more crushed ice to fill. Finish by garnishing with a healthy sprig of fresh mint leaves. “That gives you a great breath of fresh mint as you go in for that first sip,” Kelley adds.