January 20, 2018

A Day at the Races: 2017 Indiana Derby at Indiana Grand

A record Indiana Grand crowd enjoyed a perfect evening of racing on Indiana Derby Day (Vance Hanson photo)

When it comes to seating (or at worst standing room) as a first-time visitor to a racetrack, call me a snob. Whether it’s in the grandstand, a clubhouse dining room, or a press box, I want and generally need that sweeping, panoramic view to take it all in.

What makes Indiana Grand unique from every Thoroughbred venue I’ve ever visited (and probably most I haven’t) is that in Shelbyville, Indiana, it’s the railbird that’s truly king. With an apron virtually level with the racetrack and a video board being only a partial obstruction to how the race is unfolding on the backside, a good set of binoculars is the only piece of equipment needed to enjoy the traditional advantages of being upstairs while down closer to the action.

Perhaps a lot of that has to do with the modernity of the facility. Indiana Grand is only about 15 years old, thus it doesn’t fit the prototype of every other track around built in the 19th or 20th centuries. But its designers still have to be commended for ensuring spectators are on top of the action everywhere as practically as possible.

I arrived at Indiana Grand the day before the Indiana Derby to get the lay of the land. While it was a fairly quiet Friday afternoon of racing, it was immediately apparent that every part of the apron is worthy of hanging out at, with often comfortable and shaded seating nearest the concessions and watering holes by the winner’s circle and finish line. Two stages were set up for musical entertainment (both taken down by Derby Day morning), and while I missed the main show Friday evening, the facility itself seemingly works quite well as a multi-purpose venue.

The track’s most attractive feature to me was the paddock. Situated nearly a furlong up from the finish line, it could easily go completely unnoticed by the unsuspecting racing newcomer. That in itself would be a shame as it’s here where fans of all ages are literally close enough to touch the contestants. Rather than the standard walking ring, the saddling stalls are faced by a bell curve-shaped area where several horses can be walked simultaneously before the call for riders up.

Even on the biggest day in track history on Derby night, crowds in the paddock were never more than two or three deep, and almost non-existent down by the walking path connecting the paddock with the racetrack, a great spot to snap photos and to wish the rider on your favorite good luck. Between the paddock and racetrack are several grassy areas, perfect for families with young children and a fun place to watch and hear the horses drive toward the finish on both the dirt and turf courses at fairly close range.

As far as the interior areas, the ground floor OTB Bar looked the perfect place to keep cool and veg in front of 10 sharp-picture flat screen TVs. On the second floor is the traditional clubhouse dining area and a small non-reserved seating area for those that need the panoramic fix, although the numerous window panes distract from what would normally be a superior view. Downstairs and outside is the place to be for that.

As noted, Indiana Derby Day on Saturday was the biggest in track history. Indiana Grand announced a record crowd of 13,622 and a record handle for the 10-race card of $3.581 million. During a summer that’s been frustratingly wet, which had greatly affected the use of the turf course in recent weeks, patrons were finally able to bask in sunshine early in the card, enjoyed comfortable temperatures, and the grass racing went on as scheduled. In addition to the two Grade 3 features, the undercard stakes, worth $100,000 each, were especially deep with multiple graded winners in virtually all of them. It was a strong, attractive program.

When announcing the attendance to the press, race marketing manager Tammy Knox quoted track officials as saying they “nearly ran out of parking” and that the track was “near capacity.” While I’ll take their word on those two fronts, it was never uncomfortably crowded on the apron and mobility was generally good throughout the night, evidence perhaps they could handle more than they think. With a crowd that size in a facility that size, the resulting vibe was incredible. It was a happening, it was an event, it was a place to be.

A couple more things are worth mentioning. Throughout the facility, including areas not generally used for spectating, are sprinkled vintage photographs and prints running the gamut of Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing history. For a track so relatively new, its acquisition of such memorabilia I found neat, and in the case of the harness material a nice touch given the state’s historic importance to that side of the sport (e.g. Indiana is the birthplace of Dan Patch) and the fact Indiana Grand is now all Thoroughbred while the trotters and pacers reside permanently at Hoosier Park in Anderson.

A photo of Good Time, the 1946 Fox Stake winner at the Indiana State Fair, is displayed in the OTB Bar at Indiana Grand

A relatively minor quibble with the Indiana Grand experience is that an increase in the number of audio speakers, or at least a stronger amplification of announcer Bill Downes’ accurate and enjoyable race calls, would enhance the experience, especially for those downstairs that may not have the best view of the video board or may not be hanging near a TV. As crowds everywhere have generally dwindled, I understand it may not be a high priority for tracks to ensure their announcers can be heard clearly and succinctly. Unfortunately, a few tracks of my acquaintance are not as good as they used to be in that regard. For an event like the Indiana Derby, which is growing fast, kicking it up a notch so that the sound of the call is at least equal to the cheers from the crowd could be of some benefit.

With new records in attendance and handle set on Indiana Derby Day in 2016 and 2017, Indiana Grand is obviously doing a lot right with their premier race. From this view, it’s become an event those that live within a few hours drive should seriously consider experiencing for themselves in the years ahead. In an era when too many major races are being played before empty houses or in houses that seem empty because of the sheer size of the facility, the Indiana Derby felt like a big-time race. It’s certainly become a mid-summer racing highlight in this area of the country, and in general any Saturday night outing at Indiana Grand is sure to be relaxing and enjoyable.

(all photos by Vance Hanson)

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