LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Nearly a year after a stinging critique, Churchill Downs is offering new accommodations for the owners of Kentucky Derby horses — suites so close to the track that guests can see dirt kicked up on the stretch run.
Workers were putting finishing touches on them Wednesday as Churchill executives showed off the Winner's Circle Suites and a new courtyard that will provide up-close viewing for more than 600 Derby fans.
Track officials said the suites were discussed well before it was hit by criticism about how it caters to horse owners. Steve Coburn, co-owner of last year's Derby and Preakness winner, California Chrome, lashed out at Churchill after the Preakness, held at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
"Churchill Downs needs to call Maryland to get a lesson in hospitality," Coburn said.
The new project, including a redesigned trackside winner's circle, cost $4.2 million.
The 20 open-air suites will be situated in a prime spot under the Louisville track's iconic twin spires. The private suites offer easy access to the paddock where owners can watch their horses being saddled for the Run for the Roses on May 2.
An owner pays $25,000 to enter their horse in the Derby and another $25,000 to start. Just reaching the Derby can be a tremendous longshot — an estimated 23,500 North American foals were born in 2012 and only 20 thoroughbreds worldwide will reach the Derby starting gate this year, Churchill officials said.
Each Derby horse owner will get 18 complimentary tickets for the suites as well as food and drinks.
In the past, owners received a complimentary six-person box in the third-floor clubhouse.
The new suites don't have the fancy trappings of The Mansion, the ultra-exclusive section offering panoramic views of the track. But track president Kevin Flanery predicted the horse owners will relish the trackside view to watch horses "go right in front of them for the stretch and hit that finish line."
"When you're out here, you're getting the sights, you're getting the sounds," Flanery told reporters.
The new suites drew compliments from prominent horsemen expected to have horses running in this year's Derby.
"They needed to react to some criticism they had last year, and I applaud them for reacting quickly and creating some more spaces for the lifeblood of our industry, and that's the owners who buy these horses," said Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm, which co-owns Derby contender Carpe Diem.
Jack Wolf, co-owner of Starlight Racing and whose latest Derby contender is Itsaknockout, said the track got a "bum rap" with the criticism.
"The way I've been treated at Churchill has been fantastic," he said.
Derby Day draws about 160,000 to Churchill Downs.