From opening day in April straight through the Fall meet, the thousands of guests who pass through Churchill Downs have questions, requests and, occasionally, demands. Director of Guest Services Cindy Cook puts them all on the right track.
Written by Christine Fellingham | Photographed by Kylene White
When Churchill Downs opens its gates to the world in just a few weeks, Cindy Cook will be the one ensuring that our global guests experience the charm, graciousness and once-in-a-lifetime memories that the Kentucky Derby is famous for. Some might wilt under that pressure, but this will be Cindy’s 27th Derby as a Churchill Downs employee and she’s ready for anything.
Cindy has held many roles – mostly in brand management, marketing and public relations – during her tenure at the track, and she brings all of that experience to making guests’ experiences magical. With her background in marketing, she is acutely aware of the high expectations people have when they walk through the Main Gate of Churchill Downs. “In many instances we are a part of helping a guest check off a bucket list item by attending the Kentucky Derby, or just by visiting Churchill Downs Racetrack,” she says. “We understand this importance and want to make sure that experience is a memorable one.”
Much of the work takes place behind the scenes and before the gates open. “There are many long days and late nights that go into the planning and execution of Derby week and our race meets,” Cindy says. “Our team works tirelessly to make sure all things are completed in order to be ‘show ready’ once the gates open. While everyone is out enjoying the races, we are still working behind the scenes to make sure that their experience is as flawless as possible, whether they are visiting to experience all that the Greatest Two Minutes in sports has to offer, or are on-track during a regular race day.”
“I work with a group of absolute rock stars in Guest Services. We are passionate service providers who accept challenges as they come, break through the difficulties, pivot when needed and make things happen flawlessly, all in the name of enhancing the experience of our guests.”
Her Derby week is virtually non-stop. “Once we get to that stage in the game, every day is busy and each day brings about a new set of opportunities,” she says. “While there is sometimes organized chaos in the countdown that leads up to the time that the gates open, it is always so exciting to see all of the hard work and moving parts successfully come together. We all thrive off of the energy and long days and nights.” She is characteristically polite when describing some of the challenges of her job: “It can be both challenging and fun to educate guests and potential fans who don’t know about the nature of horse racing in general. It is always amazing that some people have no idea that we race outside of the Kentucky Derby race itself!”
She is not one to let the heavy lift of satisfying more demanding customers interfere with her ability to continually deliver excellent, attentive and almost obsessive service. “The way I address challenges is to stay focused and always remember my mission. I try to constantly remain focused on the demographics and needs of our customers,” she says. “I show up each and every day, and in every way, to make sure my team members have the tools and knowledge to do their job and to make the experience of our guests the best possible.”
While coworkers marvel at her tireless enthusiasm and creativity, she chalks it up to loving her job and describes her work philosophy this way, “Have fun and take time to smell the roses along the way. We spend a lot of hours away from our family and friends leading up to Derby week, so it is important that we enjoy what we do and have fun with it. Happy employees will share that happiness with guests.”
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