"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
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
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
"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.