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Steepled in Racing History : A Century for Churchill Downs' Landmark Twin Spires

May 07, 1995|HAL BOCK | ASSOCIATED PRESS

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — They stand majestically atop the grandstand at Churchill Downs, two wonderfully unique exclamation points highlighting the skyline of America's most famous race track.

This year marked the 100th anniversary that the landmark Twin Spires have graced a Kentucky Derby, thoroghbred racing's premier event.

Churchill Downs was a much different place when it was constructed somewhat haphazardly in 1875. The grandstand was located on the east side of the track, leaving spectators squinting into the afternoon sun.

When a group of entrepreneurial bookmakers took over the struggling track in 1894, the first order of business was to construct a new grandstand, one on the west side of the plant, where the setting sun would not interfere with the comfort of the customers.

The job went to D.X. Murphy & Brother Inc., a Louisville firm known today as Luckett & Farley, and a 24-year-old draftsman, Joseph D. Baldez. Like any enterprising architect, Baldez wanted to build something special, something that would take the Downs out of the ordinary. The grandstand was hardly memorable. But Baldez wasn't through.

He came up with the Spires as an afterthought. placing them as ornamental landmarks to add a touch of panache to the roofline. He designed them with slate roofs and open portals, a dramatic, eye-catching addition to Churchill's profile.

Three hundred workers began construction in the fall of 1894, setting the Spires 134 feet apart atop the roof of the new grandstand. On May 6, 1895, they were ready, just in time for the 21st running of the Kentucky Derby.

Back then, it cost just $1 to sit in Baldez's fancy, new grandstand but really high-rollers could get into the paddock for $1.50. Ladies were charged 50 cents and infield space was free.

For Saturday's 121st Kentucky Derby, grandstand seats started at $40 and went for as high as $79. The highest priced seat now was $463 to sit in the terrace. It cost $20 to get into the infield.

In 1895, the Derby distance was 1 1/2 miles, and trainers weren't keen on sending 3-year-old horses that far so early in the season. As a result, just four horses entered the 1895 Derby.

The winner was Halma, guided to a wire-to-wire victory by 15-year-old James "Soup" Perkins, one of three black jockeys in the race. Halma had gone off as the 1-to-3 betting favorite--all wages were handled by bookmakers in those days--and earned a purse of $2,970. Now, a Derby win is worth well over a half-million dollars and considerably more than that in breeding fees.

The 1895 Derby attracted a crowd of just 25,000, many of them probably dazzled by Baldez's new grandstand and the steeples above it that sat on octagonal-shaped bases with portals and arches decorated by the Fleur de Lis, the symbol of the City of Louisville. From the grandstand's roof to their pointed tops, the spires measured 55 feet.

They were a handsome touch to the landscape of the Downs and from time to time they were put to other use. In 1925, they were used for the first time as radio broadcast booths with Credo Harris, one of the announcers on Louisville station WHAS, describing the perch as "this dizzy place."

Baldez became a prominent Louisville architect, who designed among other structures three historic Louisville hospitals--St. Joseph, St. Anthony and General. The Downs and the spires, however, became his defining work.

He liked the races and often visited Churchill Downs. But never on Derby Day, according to his daughter, Helen. In a 1957 interview, she remembered her father on the first Saturdays of May "pacing from one room to another, smoking his pipe and wishing it were over." His anxiety, according to his daughter, was understandable as Derby crowds built, year after year.

"He was responsible for the structural stength of the grandstands and felt that even a bannister would fall and someone should be hurt, he would be to blame."

The steeples will house a time capsule from Saturday's race. When it is opened on May 6, 2095, observers will find a proclamation from President Clinton, a memento from the 1995 Derby winner and soil from the race track.

What sights those Spires have seen, even after only one century: the brilliant beginnings of 11 Triple Crowns; five wins each by jockeys Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack and Bill Shoemaker's four, separated by 31 years from the first in 1955 to the last in 1986; a jet-propelled record time of 1:59 2-5 by Secretariat in 1973 and a slow motion clocking of 2:15 1-5 by Stone Street in 1908 and 98 others between those two extremes.

And through it all, Baldez's bannisters have remained sturdily in place. Just like his Twin Spires.

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