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Progress is no subtle beast

F

irst images can be burned forever into memory.

The Grand Canyon. Niagara Falls. The Colosseum in Rome. Big Sur. The Manhattan skyline. The twin spires at Churchill Downs silhouetted against the gentle illumination of first light viewed from the end of the mile chute.

That image now lingers only in memory. The iconic spires remain but are now dwarfed by the towering expanses built to accommodate luxury suites and casinos that have yet to be embraced by Kentucky politicians. The top floors of the new version of Churchill Downs look down on the spires, the historic track's once crowning glory overshadowed by what some see as progress, others as desecration by architecture.

The Churchill Downs landscape, the Kentucky Derby and the city that is home to both have undergone dramatic evolution since the last Derby winner won the Triple Crown.

Kentucky itself has seen marked change in the past 30 years. The distillation of bourbon is constant, but the autumn air around Lexington no longer carries the pungent scent of curing tobacco. Poultry, not horses, is the state's largest agricultural product. The breeding industry has contracted as other states offer generous incentives fueled by proceeds from alternative gaming. Louisville has become a livable city.

• • • • •

When Affirmed beat Alydar in the Derby of 1978, Louisville was very much a river town struggling almost apologetically to keep up with the 20th century. Churchill Downs, up close, looked like the work of a dyslexic madman with a life-size erector set, and the Derby was the only race run there that mattered.

What is now a vibrant city -- with a nationally prominent medical community, rejuvenated historical districts, diverse cultural alternatives, good restaurants and hotels, expansive public parks, colleges and a large university, accommodating suburbs, nightlife, and an active downtown -- has evolved from a town that not too long ago hunkered down on the southern bank of the Ohio River, doing its best to avoid the attention of outsiders except when they brought money in copious sums during the first weekend of May.

In that Louisville, there were, at most, four habitable hotels, at least two of which required a taste for (or at least tolerance of) sketchy decor and all things musty and worn. There were fewer acceptable restaurants capable of much more than a regional stew known as burgoo or a plate of congealed cheese, sliced turkey and tomato known as a "hot brown." Both were acquired tastes. There was, however, an abundance of dark and often-forbidding bars, most of which had windows decorated with neon signs that said either "Whiskey" or "Girls, Girls, Girls."

Louisville in 2013 barely resembles the city in which Affirmed beat Alydar, an era that predates guided morning tours of the Churchill Downs backstretch, the orchestrated and convoluted draw for post position staged inconveniently in late afternoon, point systems, and a race presented by a fast-food conglomerate that sells more fried chicken in China than in the land of Colonel Sanders.

There was no Churchill Downs Inc. in those days. The home of the Derby was simply Churchill Downs, a racing association without greater ambition. The stock was owned primarily by people with an interest in the sport and was thinly traded. A typical racing card was not discernibly better than those offered at nearby River Downs or what was then known at Latonia, now Turfway Park, generally cheap horses even on the Derby-day supporting card. In the pre-Internet infancy of simulcasting, there was no advance-deposit wagering platform, no consideration of shareholder interest. With "Inc." came acquisitions in Florida, Chicago and New Orleans as well as a tote company, casinos and an online poker enterprise. The Derby went from big race to an industry unto itself. With "Inc." came a new image and a view focused on the bottom line. Homespun, how-y'all-doin' Churchill Downs was gone, never to return.

• • • • •

This is how the present-day "Inc." describes itself:

"CDI is a diversified growth company built around three core businesses.

"Our Racing operations occupy more than 800 acres of real estate in four cities: Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Ill.; Calder Casino & Race Course in Miami Gardens, Florida; Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in New Orleans, Louisiana; and Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville, Ky., home of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.

"Our Gaming operations consist of 33,000 square feet of gaming space, including slots machines, table games and a poker room at Harlow's Casino Resort & Hotel in Greenville, Miss., 1,245 slot machines and poker room at the Calder Casino, 606 slot machines at the Fair Grounds Slots venue, and 809 video poker machines at our 11 off-track-betting establishments in New Orleans.

"Our online operations include our Internet wagering business, TwinSpires.com, an interest in the horse racing television network HRTV and our Bloodstock Research and Information Services business which provides handicapping and breeding data and publications."

Rapidly expanding "Inc." needed an upgraded image, and the eyesore that was Churchill Downs beneath the spires -- a patchwork of metalwork in which each of many expansions was clearly evident -- fell to the 20th century. From 2001 to 2005, the track underwent a 3½ year, $121 million renovation. The clubhouse and grandstand were replaced with a pair of huge buildings that house 79 luxury suites. The corporate culture overtook the hard boots. The twin spires, an iconic landmark, became a logo.

• • • • •

This ain't your daddy's Churchill Downs. There was a certain charm that is no longer part of the racing experience in Louisville. Old Churchill welcomed you back every spring like an old friend. "Inc." is impersonal and aloof. It revolves around return-on-investment and share price, not tradition. It could be anywhere.

But for all its commercial diversification and ever-widening sphere, "Inc." still lives and dies with two days in May. Derby eve, Oaks day, was once known as "Louisville's day at the races," until "Inc." -- recognizing a captive audience when it saw one -- introduced the requirement to purchase tickets for both days and moved the celebration for locals to Thursday.

On most days, Churchill Downs is like any other racetrack -- generally empty. Night racing on Fridays has been popular, but day to day, few rattle around in a place built to accommodate large crowds. Unlike other tracks, it has this advantage: About a quarter-million people will be in attendance over the weekend and "Inc." will maximize the opportunity. There is no draw in American sport quite like the Derby, which holds an audience for some eight hours from first post until last, much of that time devoted to eating, drinking and gambling.

With its various enterprises, "Inc." now enjoys a national scope that expands exponentially into the international market on the first Saturday of May, but most outside Louisville or without direct connection to the racing industry still know it only as the racetrack that hosts the Kentucky Derby.

Once upon a time, that was enough.