Churchill Downs is one of the most iconic sports venues in the country. Thousands of guests pour through its gates every year to watch the Kentucky Derby and other world-famous horse races.
In 2017, the owners decided they wanted to add a colonnade wall to the famous park, to increase security and create better pedestrian flow in and out of the racetrack. The new colonnade and gate would have to match the signature architecture of the site, with its historic details and grand scale.
“The biggest challenge we faced was creating an authentic design for such an iconic racetrack and historical grounds that would include complex classical detailing in a cost-effective, feasible installation,” says Kelly Kerns, senior principal at Populous.
He notes that while the primary facility is dominated by white brick, the site has incorporated many materials and detailing in later additions, including an exterior insulation and finish system, wood, and brick. “The variety of materials presented a challenge to our design team, and we quickly realized that precast concrete with inlaid brick provided the optimum solution,” Kerns says.
Choosing precast concrete also accommodated the project’s tight time frame, says Steve Schweitzer, vice president of operations for Gate Precast. “The schedule for this project revolved around million-dollar horses and the racetrack’s meet schedules,” he says. “Since this racetrack is only open for racing 75 days out of the year, all on-site construction had to be completed between the meets.”
The construction crews also had to abide by strict sound requirements while they were on-site. “During construction, noise had to be controlled while the horses were training, which meant no loud cranes until after 10:00 a.m.,” Schweitzer notes. To accommodate that restriction, his team scheduled a small crew to provide just-in-time delivery and installation of the pieces to meet the tight deadline.
The project was completed in two phases to ensure all construction could be completed in the winter and early spring months. Design and bidding for each phase was completed before the Fall Meet at the racetrack so that construction could begin promptly at the end of November.
The design features four-sided brick-inlay columns with back-to-back precast concrete spandrels at the main entrances. Because it would be a perimeter wall, the precast concrete would be visible on both sides, requiring two-sided finished surfaces.
The spandrels were cast separately and welded together in the plant before delivery and installation. And in the Service Area, the backs of the spandrels feature an acid-washed finish to simulate the front side of the spandrels. The columns were self-supporting, standing on cast-in-place piers with the spandrels resting in pockets in the precast concrete columns.
“While the design takes full advantage of the efficiency of repetitive precast concrete bays, the formwork design and detailing required close collaboration between the design and construction team,” Kerns says. Working together they took advantage of the flexibility of precast concrete to incorporate numerous design variations that responded to varied site conditions, elevations, and geometries. This resulted in a bespoke design that looks and feels like it has been in place for decades.
“Precast concrete’s ability to incorporate matching thin bricks with concrete trim elements mimicking natural stone was a key accomplishment in this project,” Schweitzer says. “The ability to seamlessly add new elements with classic designs while utilizing products with enhanced durability and security were major factors in its success.”