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Run for the Roses hitting its stride

Image: Calvin Borel, Street Sense
Jockey Calvin Borel rides Street Sense to the finish line at last year's Kentucky Derby.Al Behrman / AP file

In his 1970 article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson points out the grassy infield at Churchill Downs to English artist Ralph Steadman before the race.

”That whole thing … will be jammed with people, fifty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk. It’s a fantastic scene – thousands of people fainting, crying … and fighting with broken whiskey bottles.”

On Saturday, the overserved in the infield will stumble about, one of the few sure things during the Run for the Roses. But in many ways, the late journalist would be stunned at how the annual horse race in his hometown has become a sober story of business success.

True, the Derby has always been popular, as the first leg of the Triple Crown and as one of the harbingers of spring. But it has truly hit its stride in the past few years.

In 2006, Yum Brands became the first presenting sponsor in the race’s 132-year history, signing a five-year pact and paying millions of dollars for the privilege (which includes a logo on the Churchill Downs grandstand). Visa, once the title sponsor of the the sport’s Triple Crown – the Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes – dropped that decade-long association and signed a pact as the exclusive credit card for Kentucky Derby tickets.

And with secondary ticket markets growing, prices are soaring. At, the Kentucky Derby garnered the 10th-hottest ticket price in the secondary market in 2007 at an average of $817.06, when more than 156,000 fans – the third-highest total ever – crowded Churchill Downs. The $817.06 figure was only pennies away from the cost of a Boston-Colorado World Series game last fall, according to data compiled by SportsBusiness Daily. On a week before this year’s race, first row Turf Club tickets were being offered for more than $8,000 apiece (parking not included). Of course, a general admission seat is a little cheaper ($40 at the gate Saturday).

Even the machines that once replaced horses as modes of transportation are latching onto the Derby. Earlier this month, International became the official truck of the Kentucky Derby. And the Derby enjoyed an injection of horsepower from NASCAR last year. In a race at the Talladega Superspeedway just before the one in Louisville, Dale Jarrett’s car featured a Kentucky Derby paint scheme to promote the brand, which is hotter than ever. According to Forbes Magazine, the Kentucky Derby is the eighth-most-valuable sports brand in the world, ahead of even the World Series and the NBA Finals.

How did a two-minute horse race achieve such cachet?

”It’s certainly a tradition, and it’s like the Super Bowl in terms of rarity,” said Kerry Slatkoff, vice president of Ketchum Sports Network. “That rarity helps develop the cachet.

“Part of the value gets developed around the experience. You look at the people who come for the all-day experience, not just the two-minute race. There’s the drama of it with jockeys and horses combined with legal betting, which is not widespread across other sports. It has become such a huge celebrity draw.”

So much so that Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood” will host a red carpet event during NBC’s prerace coverage, similar to the chitchat that occurs with celebrities before the Oscars. In fact, NBC Sports, which achieved its best ratings since 2001 during last year’s race, is adding 30 minutes to its prerace coverage on Saturday.

Two years ago, wagering on the Derby hit a record $118.4 million, a figure almost surpassed during the 2007 race. This year, plenty of money will be bet on Big Brown, who looks to be the favorite at post time. Women in wide-brimmed hats will sip the Early Times Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail, which has been "The Official Mint Julep of the Kentucky Derby" for two decades, and cheer on the thoroughbreds during the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum Brands, the race’s official name.

Though Thompson would likely lambaste the recent kowtowing to business interests as proof that “greedheads” were running the show, he would be heartened by one bit of news. On April 22, Churchill Downs chose Herradura as the official tequila for this year’s Derby. In the land of whiskey, it’s quite unexpected to snare a tequila sponsor, a first for the venerable race. If the Good Doctor were alive, no doubt he’d enjoy a few shots and ensure the Derby once again was decadent and depraved.