Killing tradition, one seat license at a time

May 3, 2007 at 7:17 pm

Nine years ago, I wrote a column about my dad and his older brother that attempted to examine, and glorify, their annual Kentucky Derby ritual, which I learned, after asking questions for the piece, dated at least to the early 1950s. Specifically, I was out to document their streak of consecutive years attending the Derby together, which they agreed began in 1954, and to poke some gentle fun at their habits, which I had observed every year of my life like clockwork.

Food, parking, betting, food.

Did I mention food? And parking? I’m still not sure which is the bigger obsession. All I can tell you is they never paid to park, because that would have gotten them kicked out of the family. And yet they typically made it home much sooner than folks who did pay big bucks to park near the track. Magic.

It was always a delight to watch them working their Derby week drill, going over racing forms, plotting what to eat on the big day, plotting their commute to the track, talking back to the TV when the experts touted their picks on Friday night, watching the occasional NBA playoff game on a second TV with the volume turned down.
The column also discussed the whole mysterious way Churchill Downs deals with Derby tickets and wondered aloud if the pair that my dad, Robert, and his brother, aka Uncle Curly, had been using for so long would ever be passed along to someone in the family. Like Tony Soprano’s life on HBO, I was curious how and when the Stemle Derby Ticket Connection would end.

Now I know. Personal seat licenses. This year their seats, in Section 221, fell into a small block of tickets that Churchill Downs has subjected to its personal seat license program, the proceeds of which are meant to help pay off the track’s recent multimillion dollar upgrade. Because, you know, Yum! Brands! Can’t! Pay! For! Everything!

Now, to preserve the opportunity to buy the tickets that have increased in cost steadily over the past decade ($65 each in 1998, $95 each by 2004, and $165 each in 2007), there would be an extra $1,000 per ticket charge, which would lock in the “privilege” of buying them for five years.

When my uncle received the letter from Churchill Downs, informing him that, “As a Kentucky Derby customer, we are inviting you to participate in an exciting program that will guarantee you Derby and Oaks seats,” he knew what he was looking at, and he became quite indignant. He washed his hands then and there and flipped those folks off all the way from Michigan. He never called back to complain or take the track up on its offer to help find seats in other sections that are thus far excluded from the seat license program.
He’s old-school like that.

This isn’t how it was supposed to end. I figured someday I’d be dropping them off and helping situate them in motorized wheelchairs and pointing them toward Gate 1. I figured I would be standing in betting lines for them, fretting over whether I remembered their precise picks but afraid to relinquish a place in line to go back and ask.

It’s not gonna happen. Our tradition has been felled by a power greater than ourselves. Something green and mean.

But I think we’ll get through it. I might even suggest it’s for the best, a healthy exercise in letting change roll off your back. Sure, I could decry the modern entertainment behemoth for ruining my annual Norman Rockwell set piece, but what difference would that make? Frankly, when it comes to once-quaint sporting traditions getting flogged to death by corporate greed, the Derby is coming from way off the pace and has a lot of ground to make up.

I’ll miss the ritual, but my uncle may still drive down from Michigan this week, if the shingles that have been torturing him let up. Let’s hope they do. With TVG and ESPN and all of the other options for saturating their brains with all things Derby, they’ll still be sitting in my parents’ den, talking about this year’s race, looking at the forms, recalling Derby Days past, still geeking out. We’ll still make it out for dinner at Joe Huber’s restaurant or the Chicken House. I’ll still stick them with the check.

But I do feel sad for future generations. There will come a day, not so far in the future, when all Derby tickets are bought and doled out by the corporations or the Bruce Gumers of the world. That will completely cut out the average Joes who show up at the venerable racetrack on regular race days.

Churchill president Steve Sexton graciously sat down for an interview last week, and he told me he does indeed care about the average folks. He said it’s nearly impossible to please everyone who wants tickets to one of the nation’s hottest sporting events.

I believe him, but the way the game is played now, there’s only so much room for sentimentality. And its place is clearly in the debit column.

A link to the 1998 column referenced above: