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Kentucky Derby tradition keeps fans coming to Churchill Downs

By Jerry Beach

The Kentucky Derby, the first leg in horse racing's Triple Crown, has long been called "the greatest two minutes in sports." And for Louisville-based Derby Box, those two minutes are the ones it is focused on the other 527,038 minutes of the year.

Derby Box founder Doug Dearen, who offers both individual tickets to the Kentucky Derby as well as travel packages, said there has been a record amount of interest in the 138th running of the Derby, which is scheduled for Saturday, May 5 at Louisville's Churchill Downs.

"It's really strong this year," Dearen told TicketNews. "A big strong year-round push for both our packages and our ticket sales. It has continued to increase and we've had a record number of sales throughout the year."

As usual, Dearen is getting interest from fans of all stripes and demographics, from those who just want to get in the door and enjoy the atmosphere to those willing to pay several hundred — or several thousand — dollars to get a view of the race or inside the prestigious Turf Club.

As of this morning, May 4, tickets at DerbyBox.com range from $300 for a seat in Section 128 in the Grandstand Terrace to $4,000 seats in the Turf Club that include food and drinks. A search of StubHub.com this morning, meanwhile, revealed 439 tickets available for Saturday's race, the cheapest of which was a $337.95 seat in the Lower Grandstand 126.

In addition, the Derby offers general admission tickets — which allows for access to the Churchill Downs infield area but no view of the track — for $40 prior to Saturday and $50 on race day.

"It's a good combination — we've got more repeat customers than we've ever had and then there's always [the] newbies that come every year," Dearen said. "But we're really, really surprised about how strong our corporate people are, our large package group people, and the people who buy the big popular seats."

This year should mark the third straight year of improved sales for Derby Box, which had its toughest year in memory at the height of the recession in 2009, as well as a possible second straight year of record attendance at the Derby. Last year's Derby drew a record 164,858 fans, breaking the previous mark of 163,628 that had stood since the 100th anniversary running of the Derby in 1974.

That interest in the Derby has remained strong — despite high gas prices, the continued uncertainty of the economy, and the minimal amount of interest generated by horse racing once the Triple Crown races have been run — speaks to the tradition and multi-generational allure of the race.

"I think it means that the Kentucky Derby itself is still one of the greatest events there is, it’s still incredibly popular and probably will be for many, many years to come, in spite of the fact that the entire industry of horse racing is not doing this well," Dearen said. "But the Derby is still strong."

The Kentucky Derby also allows fans to potentially get in on the ground floor of history. No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, the longest drought ever.

The Preakness Stakes (scheduled for Saturday, May 19 in Maryland) and the Belmont Stakes (scheduled for Saturday, June 9 on Long Island) are the races that benefit the most from a potential Triple Crown winner — the last time a horse won the first two legs of the Triple Crown was in 2008, when the Belmont Stakes drew 94,476 fans as Big Brown finished last. But the Kentucky Derby gives fans the chance to say they were there when it all began.

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