LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Everything is more audacious at the Kentucky Derby — the crowd, the hats, the wagering and now the gigantic video board displaying the horses in super-sized form.
Looming higher than the iconic Twin Spires, the “Big Board” made its Derby debut Saturday as the newest landmark at Churchill Downs.
The giant screen is giving fans a new perspective on the world’s most famous horse race. From the Churchill infield, the throngs now have a larger-than-life view of the race, even if they never see the track.
“That board is epic,” said Lewis Grant, a hometown race fan from Louisville, Kentucky. “It’s totally changed the dynamic of the infield.”
Danny Stuck camped out with friends beneath the massive screen, as close as they could get without being on the backside. They stared up at it at a 45-degree angle, in a spot where they’ve gathered for years.
“That’s the best thing that Churchill Downs has ever done,” Stuck, a 69-year-old Derby regular, said while marveling at the screen.
By late morning, thousands of race fans relaxing in lawn chairs had converged on the infield lawn in front of the giant TV screen.
People-watching remained a popular activity when the horses weren’t running on a mild, breezy Derby Day. Colorful plumed hats — a Derby fashion staple — were plentiful as tens of thousands of fans filed into the famed racetrack.
California Chrome was the morning-line favorite among the 19 horses entered in the 140th Derby. Temperatures were expected in the low 70s with a slight chance of showers at race time.
Towering 170 feet over the backstretch, the high-definition video screen that cost $12 million is bigger than three NBA basketball courts, bigger than the screens on the monstrous four-sided display at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys.
The horses are shown some 70 feet tall, more than 10 times their true size. It’s backed by 750 new speakers installed throughout the track, which some fans said weren’t loud enough but caught jockey Rosie Napravnik’s attention.
The sound system is “very overwhelming,” Napravnik said after winning the Kentucky Oaks on Friday aboard Untapable, and who will ride Vicar’s in Trouble in the Derby.
Count Shawn Adkins among the instant fans of the video board.
He stood waving his arms, his back to the finish line, as he watched the screen and cheered on the threesome of horses he bet on in a Derby-eve race. The trio finished in the top three, giving him a ticket worth nearly $200.
It beat jostling for a coveted infield spot along the fence to get a momentary look at the blur of horses racing past. Or watching the race on the old video screen that was miniature in size compared to the track’s new entertainment attraction.
“We’ve been sitting back, drinking and watching the board,” he said. “It’s awesome. Last year we could hardly see anything. It’s made a big difference.”
The state-of-the-art video board features an ultra-high definition picture, Churchill Downs said. It’s 170 feet wide and 90 feet tall, and sits 80 feet above the ground, putting it about 50 feet higher than the grandstand’s Twin Spires. It’s 11 feet wider and 18 feet higher than the screens that loom above NFL games in Dallas, the largest in the world of their kind when they debuted in 2009.
The board made its debut last Saturday on opening night of Churchill’s spring meet.
The only ones that won’t notice the board might be the horses.
“When you’re right next to it, all you see is the columns,” said Ryan J. Jordan, general manager of the Churchill Downs racetrack. “You’re too close to it to actually see the board.”
(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)