Often a turning point in one’s life comes by simply answering a help wanted ad. And when the position being advertised is at an historic Louisville venue then, as in the case of Marigene Witten, it takes you from college admissions counselor to manager of The Mansion, the privatest of private spaces at Churchill Downs.
By Lucy M. Pritchett

Photos by Patti Hartog

But let’s begin at the beginning. Marigene (her name is a combination of her mother’s and father’s names) majored in communications, theater, and comparative literature at Indiana University. While there she was a DJ for the college radio station WIUS. After graduation she moved to High Point, North Carolina to work in marketing and sales at a radio station then became admissions counselor for High Point University. She moved on to become assistant director of admissions with Transylvania University in Lexington and then associate director of admissions at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina.


“I traveled a lot in the Northeast and Midwest and Puerto Rico going to high schools, college fairs, and meeting with prospective students and their families,” she says about those years. “I loved working with high school students and helping them through the college admissions process — guiding them in preparing their applications and for interviews.”

Eventually, after raising her son and daughter, she moved back to her hometown of Louisville and was working as part-time assistant director of admissions with Northern Kentucky University just south of Cincinnati.

“I was looking for another part-time position and thought it might be fun to work at Churchill Downs. I had been to several Derbies — at my first one I saw Secretariat win in 1973 — and being a Louisvillian, I had an immense amount of pride for what Churchill Downs has done for the city and Kentucky.”

As it happens, Churchill Downs was looking for a person to fill a position in guest services. Marigene replied to its online posting. “It was 2005 and a new section, the Finish Line Suites, had just opened and I became concierge for that venue. I think it was because I could pronounce concierge (con see airzh) correctly that I got the job,” she says with a laugh.

When The Mansion opened in 2013, Marigene stepped into the position of manager. The Mansion is typically only available for the Oaks and Derby and provides its guests with the ultimate — and pricey — Churchill Downs experience.

Entryway to The Mansion — guests aren’t allowed to take photos when they enter. 

And just as she catered to her college-seeking students and their families, Marigene coddles her Derby Day and Oaks Day clients. She shows finesse: she once arranged for the right-sized hotel bed for a guest at 11:30 the night before Oaks. She is a proficient juggler: each Derby, one guest ships four or five hats directly to Marigene which she then delivers to the woman’s hotel. And talk about courage? She had to turn away 6-foot-4 New England Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady at the door. He was looking for friends but didn’t have a ticket to The Mansion. So sorry, Tom. You can’t come in.

Turning from college campuses to Churchill Downs has proven to be a gratifying move for Marigene.

Marigene stands on the balcony of The Mansion. 

“I do look for opportunities and am willing to go into an adventure,” Marigene says. “Doors have opened up for me throughout my life. And I am willing to try something new. I try to stay receptive to change because I don’t know what it might bring.”

Find out how a car ride turned into a turning point for this woman