"I guess I've heard just about everything."
Lee Ann Shellman knows a thing or two about the Kentucky Derby and how to get tickets.
At some point in any explanation of the Kentucky Derby ticket allocation process, words must fail. After all, how do you convey the combination of enormity, responsibility and just plain weirdness that goes with the job of choosing who gets Derby tickets and who doesn't. When that point arrived this spring, Lee Ann Shellman rose abruptly from behind her desk and disappeared into a room adjoining her office to return a few moments later with fistfuls of letters.
"Here," she said, shoving piles of paper across an already rather cluttered desktop. "Take a look at these. They'll give you an idea of what it's like."
Then she reached for her beeping telephone to take a call.
It would be erroneous to imply that confusion reigns within the walls of this handsomely paneled room whose window looks across the open field of concrete behind Gate 1. As director of special events, Shellman does, indeed, handle a staggering 50,000 requests for tickets each year; during the two weeks following the Derby, the deluge of requests for the next year flows at a rate of 1,000 a day. Her office responds to these requests by sending back a form. When the forms return to Churchill Downs, their information goes into a data bank, which will then be tracked for a number of seasons to come, since three or four yearly requests may be necessary before the applicant - oh, let's be honest, the supplicant - is finally bestowed with an invitation to purchase tickets.
But the numbers tell only half the story, maybe even less. Many requests carry a special urgency - those pleas, as Shellman explained, "that tug at your heartstrings." For some, Derby Day marks a wedding anniversary. Or maybe attendance is a lifelong dream. Or aspirants send pictures of themselves holding their dog, or a funny sign. Others still make a request on behalf of, say, a dying relative. Those get notched on the way into the computer, since Shellman has seen people make the same plea for a number of consecutive years. She shook her head: "Can you imagine someone treating a thing like that so lightly? They don't get tickets."
On the other hand, what do you expect? Churchill Downs has about 48,500 seats, including the boxes, for an event that generally draws about a crowd of more than 150,000. Even after you eliminate all those hardy and possibly not quite sober souls who voluntarily choose the infield, that leaves a lot of people looking for a place to rest their weary bones.
And this isn't even the only responsibility of the two-person Special Events office.
Along with the other high-volume races - the Kentucky Oaks and the Breeders' Cup - Shellman looks after the season box-holders, who pay $2,250 for the privilege of occupying a six-seat chamber on the third tier of the grandstand, but whose attendance must be tracked throughout a racing season.
Whew. No wonder she keeps a set of rollerblades and a workout suit in her office - in a corner where she can grab them on her way out the door.
While she continued her telephone conversation in a low voice, I shuffled through the letters. They'd come from all over. Florida, Illinois, South Carolina, Michigan, New Jersey, California, Ohio. One guy attributed his marriage to the Derby, though he failed to provide - ah, how does one say - that all-important specificity regarding the details. Another claimed to have received the only spanking of his life after running away to see the Derby when he was 13 - hmmm, something Freudian there.
But somehow they were less dramatic than I'd expected. Many were handwritten, sometimes even scrawled, in the most stilted language: I am writing to you to request ... In a few instances, the word "request" was underlined, or written in capital letters, as if to convey an impression of immeasurable significance to a reader whom the writer imagined to be slow or easily confused. One expressed a willingness to beg. Another exercised remarkable impropriety: God will bless you if you send me tickets ... And they came on every kind of paper from the yellow sheets of a legal pad to fancy colored notepaper, from ordinary typing paper to the watermarked letterhead of professional offices. Most were straightforward, even pretty tame.
CALIFORNIA DREAMING: This photo accompanied a letter that promised that "Donna's attire will add to the beauty of the event." Maybe next year.
Then a handwritten request from San Pedro, Calif., a beach town below Los Angeles, caught my eye: "Gentleman," it began, apparently assuming that gender equality is still to arrive in our sorely misunderstood state. "My girlfriend and I are anxiously anticipating being at the Kentucky Derby this year ... Donna will be dressed like a movie star in a gold dress with all of the trimmings ... I can assure you that Donna's attire will add to the beauty of this event. I'm also hoping that we'll be allowed to have a picture of Donna with the winning horse and jockey ..." Attached was a snapshot of Donna, seemingly clad for the role of go-go dancer in a Wagnerian opera as she smiled whimsically from the middle of a room in which Elvis Presley would've felt very much at home.
Shellman hung up the phone and looked over at the picture: "They're not getting tickets," she sighed. "Maybe next year. But that is my favorite letter from the past couple of weeks."
Predictably, many myths have evolved over the years regarding Derby tickets, the most durable of which is that people get their seats for life, a point that Shellman was at great pains to dispel. Nobody, she said - and from her tone of voice, you can underline nobody - gets seats for life. Nor can seats be sold, bequeathed or otherwise transferred. And with that said, general admission, which is available on Derby Day for access to the infield or paddock areas, also lies outside the purview of the Special Events office. A committee, meanwhile, reviews box requests for the big race. As it turns out, the 1,400 or so season box-holders get the same box for all races except the Oaks and the Derby. They do get boxes for those races, but placement is based on a reward system.
"We need patrons every day," Shellman explained, "not just at the Derby and the Oaks. Those days are never an attendance problem, but you know what it's like here the Wednesday after Derby. We need people out there in the stands. So the box-holders are being watched. We want the boxes to be used by friends, family and clients, and we reward usage by the placement of seating during the big races. Maybe years ago who you were and who you knew had a bearing, but not any more. Attendance at these races has grown enormously over the past decade, and especially during the past five years, so we have to keep things as impartial as we can."
HOLY GRAIL: Tell a good story, and these could be yours. That story probably doesn't involve a gold go-go outfit.
In other words, if you buy a season box with the sole purpose of attending the Derby, the big day may find you in a box at the far end of the grandstand, over beside the planet Mars. If you use your box all the time, you might find yourself looking down on the finish line. With a total of about 1,600 boxes, the additional 200 are set aside for Derby owners and trainers. In fact, these same boxes are available on normal race days, and generally there are enough to accommodate all who want them.
As for the other reserved seating, Shellman notes: "We don't 'give' tickets. We extend invitations, and in most cases those are based on continued interest. If you write every year and you're willing to come to the Derby and sit outside, you'll probably get seats within two or three years. Once you've been invited, we invite you to write back again and retain your seats. There's no guarantee, but we do out best. We'll probably let you come three or four years, and then we un-invite you, which allows us to bring in new people. There has to be a turnover."
"When people want particular seats," she went on, "or they have conditions, like it has to be under cover, the wait can be longer. And the truth is, some of the bleacher seats are really good. You can see the race, and you can see the horses at the start and finish. One time, we offered an invitation to someone and he sent back a letter saying that he was a doctor and didn't want to sit in the bleachers with everybody else. Can you imagine? Once they refuse - let me put it this way - they don't automatically get moved to a better location."
Shellman has been in her current position for three years, and she clearly enjoys the racing business - the shelves in her office are packed with souvenirs of past Derbies, including photographs of herself with various horseracing notables. But she has worked in the Special Events office since arriving at Churchill Downs in 1988, so she's heard just about every story in the book and seen just about every possible ticket scam. Maybe you think you have a new idea, but frankly, you'd probably just be wasting your time.