Behind the Scenes at the Kentucky Derby
Every May 165,000 people descend on Lousville, Kentucky to consume 120,000 Mint Juleps, sing "My Old Kentucky Home" and wear relatively plain clothes, so as not to distract from their opulent head wear.
But just because an event has found success for almost a century and a half doesn't mean it can afford to stagnate. We live in a changing world with adapting audiences, and if horse racing is to continue its hold on American sporting culture, it needs fresh voices and eyes.
Randy Prasse, recently hired as the Senior Director of Operations at Churchill Downs is one of the fresh sets of eyes on staff.
"The Kentucky Derby has run every year since 1875—142 years—without me," acknowledges Prasse. "There is certainly a ton of history and tradition for this event and throughout the venue. That said, we are constantly building and renovating—and innovating—to ensure Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby are on the leading edge when you think of the leading venues and events in the world.
"I have been asked numerous times by the top leadership at the track to draw upon my experience to help develop an approach that incorporates industry best practices."
The challenges of balancing tradition with innovation are at the forefront for Randy Prasse, as he explains his role and his methodology for preparing for such a large event:
Prior your new role as Senior Director of Operations for Churchill Downs, you were the Executive Director of the Gettysburg Brew Fest, a cause near and dear to my heart, and the CEO of the Wisconsin State Fair. As you’ve moved into this new role, what would you say are the biggest challenges and differences you've experienced?
Prasse: Well, first of all the sheer size, scale and scope of the position. Gettysburg is a town with a population of 6,000; and we welcome 165,000 people to the Kentucky Derby each year!
Secondly, there is a temporary city that is built for the two days (Kentucky Oaks on Friday and Kentucky Derby on Saturday)—so the planning and execution is a year-round effort.
What would you identify as the primary goals of your job at Churchill Downs – what does success look like for you?
Prasse: I was brought aboard to support the Operations team—including the Vice President of Operations (Greg Bush) who has been here for over 25 years. There is so much institutional knowledge in his head—that he just instinctively knows—that my role is to extract that information and “put it on paper” in the form of updated and usable operations manuals, etc.
I manage the temporary build-out of all suites, tents, and perimeter fencing. Additionally, I oversee the seasonal guest services and overall security functions. So, you could say, much of the interaction between staff and the guest is my responsibility—the all-important “guest experience”. An enjoyable and unforgettable experience for our guests our goal.
We also interact with our Sponsorship Team and Food Services partner to make sure our sponsors and vendors maximize their exposure and sales opportunities.
You’re a self-described “change agent” – how important is it for people to continually challenge themselves to think and approach things differently?
Prasse: First, I do not subscribe to a “change for change sake” philosophy; likewise, I cringe when I hear, “Because we have always done it that way”.
If you are not challenging yourself individually to grow daily, or challenging status quo with regards to delivering the best experience possible to your guests, then you are stagnating and risk becoming obsolete.
Let’s talk about staffing – when you run a large event like the Wisconsin State Fair or the Gettysburg Beer Fest, you aren’t alone, you have a large staff alongside. If you were going to describe the type of people you gravitate towards in the hiring process – what attributes would they share?
Prasse: At the State Fair, we had a small group of year-round managers and staff to manage the “plant”. We would ramp up to the thousands during the event season, including the 11-day Wisconsin State Fair. With many of my other events—including the Gettysburg Brew Fest—I have relied heavily on volunteers.
I believe most event coordinators would agree that their event is executed on the backs of volunteers. Regardless, I want people who have fun and know that this industry—with all of its hard work, long hours, and stress—is a fun industry.
If you can’t have fun throwing a party for 165,000 people, you are in the wrong business!
The day before one of your big events launches or debuts – what keeps you up at night?
Prasse: Weather. It is the thing that keeps everyone up at night—and the one thing we can’t manage (I hate the word ‘control’ because we rarely control anything).
Of course, I am always concerned with venue security and guest safety. The end product must be fun and unique in the ‘front of house’ and safe and buttoned-up in the ‘back of house’.
Over your 25+ years managing large events how much has security changed? And furthermore how much of a focus has that become of your job?
Prasse: Obviously, the world changed on 9/11/2001. It has changed again with each mass shooting or Boston Marathon-type bombing. We consider and plan for so many new and different threats these days. We limit what people can carry-in; what they can wear; where they can go once inside the venue.
Emergency Action Planning is paramount—you don’t plan to fail but you do fail to plan. The “see something / say something” public awareness program is critical—it literally turns all 165,000 sets of eyes into an extension of our public safety team.
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