By Megan S. Willman

Amanda Walukas’s son Wyatt spent part of his birthday bonding with the horses at Churchill Downs last year. 

Amanda Walukas is serious about Churchill Downs and anything that has to do with Derby. She grew up going to the racetrack, accompanying her grandpa (who was a bookie…shhhhh!) since she was 3 years old. Her family spends holidays like Thanksgiving, Father’s Day and Mother’s Day at the track; it’s a tradition that’s part of the very fabric of her family.

I ask Amanda to tell me about Dawn at the Downs. “Oh, it’s a must-experience!” she says. “It’s real and raw, and the horses just beam in the morning.” She appreciates that it’s not as fancy or crowded as the races. Amanda has been to all three sites at Dawn: the backside, Millionaire’s Row, and the rail at Section 116, which is free to the public. (For those wanting breakfast, tickets begin at $37.)

In 2015, Amanda took her boys, Walker, 5, and Wyatt, 2, to Section 116. It happened to be Wyatt’s 2nd birthday; he was a Derby Week baby, of course. “We were bellied up to the rail, and the kids loved seeing the horses,” she says. A woman beside them brought carrots to feed the horses, and she let the boys give it a try. Amanda grins at the memory: “It was awesome, and we’ll bring carrots with us when we go back this year!”

Although section 116 is Amanda’s favorite spot, her work with Republic Services has given her an opportunity to go to Millionaire’s Row. “I’ve taken clients to Millionaire’s Row in the mornings, and we have a great time, but railside we can hear the horses’ hooves and see the dirt kick up behind them.” In 2012, she was backside in the morning because her cousin had a horse running during Derby Week. It was neat to be shoulder-to-shoulder with the trainers and wish them luck, she recalls.

“Dawn at the Downs is so amazing, there’s no way you can go wrong — just go!” she says.

Dawn at the Downs
Tuesday, May 3 through Thursday, May 5 from 7am-9am

From left to right: Julie Libs, Lisa Sturgeon, Gretchen Hammett, Michele Poe, Sharon Mehling, 
Cara Libs, Carrie Stiller, and Mindy Kim

Churchill Downs made the name “Thurby” official three years ago, although many of the faithful claim to have called it that for years. Carrie Stiller and a group of her friends have attended all three years. “We go all-out with hats and outfits and really dress for the occasion,” she says. The group rents a limousine/bus that allows them to avoid traffic and parking woes and enjoy the day eating, making bets, and cheering on the horses.

When I ask what makes Thurby fun, Carrie says, “The atmosphere really is electric. It’s all about fun fashion, yummy cocktails, and girl time. The horses are beautiful to watch, and it’s exciting to get behind the horse you chose (even if it’s just because you liked the name). It’s a fun annual event we look forward to all year. Most of us know very little about horses or racing, but we still have a blast!”

 Morgan Thomas attended last year’s Thurby event. 

From left to right: Tim Luzano, Mike Voltmer, and Aaron Snardon are also Thurby fans. 

Thursday, May 5 starting at 11am Tickets begin at $20

What Derby event are you looking forward to attending this year?