Soaking Up Louisville Pure Tap® at Churchill Downs

Winners circle at the Derby

The first Saturday in May draws tens of thousands of people to Churchill Downs every year. The historic track is on display around the world and it’s an enormous effort behind the scenes to make everything picture perfect.

From the Paddock to centerfield, it’s impossible not to notice the vibrant colors of flowers, plants, and landscaping scattered throughout.

Derby employee working with plants“We have a bunch of cannas. Those give us a tall tropical look with a lot of color. The colorful foliage are coleus. There’s several different varieties of those,” said Matt Bizzell, Churchill Downs’ director of horticulture. “We normally have a fleur-de-lis or the twin spires out in centerfield. That’s what we use to plant in that pattern. A lot of petunias, a lot of begonias, different types of begonias.”

Like his flowers, you could say Bizzell bloomed where he was planted.

“It turned into a career that I wasn’t really planning on. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. A friend of mine’s mom worked in HR over here and she told me about a job on the crew in the greenhouse. I applied and took that job and thought I’d work here for a year or two until I figured out what I wanted to do, and then never left.”

Derby Greenhouse with flowers and plantsTwenty-six years later, Bizzell’s passion which started in high school, continues to grow. Step inside the greenhouse at Churchill and you’ll find, “Probably around a hundred varieties of annuals,” Bizzell said. “There are roughly 20,000 annuals in the greenhouse. I made the decisions on what we were going to buy in July of last year. These plants were delivered to us between the first part of January and the end of March, and then we grew them to the point that you see today.”

You can bet every single one is soaking up all the Louisville Pure Tap® it can until it’s time to be planted, which can be tricky given Kentucky’s unpredictable spring weather.

“We are planting before the frost-free date for our area. Normally, Derby or the weekend after Derby is considered frost-free for the Louisville area. We have to have everything in the ground the week before Derby.”

Derby employee working with plantsLouisville Water was there in mid-April as Bizzell’s team started planting some of the flowers in centerfield, located off to the side of the Winner’s Circle.

“We waited until it looked like we had a long-term forecast of things not having frosts or freezes, and we started planting.”

But there’s one particular group of flowers that remains in the greenhouse as close to Derby Day as possible, where they are protected from the weather and freshly watered to be ready for the crowning moment.

Winners Circle at Derby“We always use red geraniums in the Kentucky Derby Winner’s Circle. That is a very sacred spot. It only gets used for the Kentucky Derby winner, so once a year,” Bizzell explained. “When you see the pictures of the Kentucky Derby winner in front of the presentation stand, he or she is standing in those geraniums. We always grow enough of those red geraniums to plant it twice depending on how badly they get damaged.”

Just outside the Winner’s Circle is the turf track where you’ll find horses running several different races on Oaks and Derby. Bizzell is quick to credit track superintendent Jamie Richardson for maintaining the unique composition of the track.

Turf Track at KY Derby“There’s actually a blend of different grasses. The fescue, bluegrass, and rye grass, those do better in cooler seasons. The Tahoma does better in the hot part of the summer.”

The blend also serves a different purpose.

“The bermuda (Tahoma) and the different grasses kind of make a rooted mat that holds the turf together. It gives a solid footing for the horses.”

So how does it keep its lush green appearance?

“We have a tank on the Backside that fills with Louisville Water. It can be filled with Louisville Water or well water, but both are used on the racetrack at different times. We have a gigantic irrigation system that feeds off Louisville Water that takes care of this turf track,” Bizzell shared.

And if the skies should open up, there’s a plan for that too.

Turf track at KY Derby

“Underneath the grass, there is a bed of sand, and underneath the sand, there is a drainage system that pulls all that (rain) water off it. It drains very quickly. That being said, because it drains so quickly, that’s why it’s important that we have Louisville Water and the irrigation system to be able to water that on an every other day schedule, depending on what the weather is doing.”

Rain or shine, Bizzell and his team are ready, and you can count on Louisville Water to keep the Pure Tap flowing.