Off to the races

By Christine Schaffran

licensed vendors, local flair and winning horses score the ultimate trifecta at The Kentucky Derby Museum Store.

Two minutes is all it takes to be considered one of the most legendary thoroughbred horses in the United States by winning the Kentucky Derby. The lead-up to the event is a head-turning extravaganza attended by some of the biggest names in Hollywood and around the globe. When it’s all over, the Kentucky Derby Museum Store is waiting to help visitors procure the perfect keepsake to commemorate the race, which is commonly referred to as the “most exciting two minutes in sports.”

The Kentucky Derby has been thrilling crowds at the Churchill Downs racetrack since 1875. The nonprofit Kentucky Derby Museum came along in 1985 to pay tribute to the many horses, jockeys and moments in the race’s storied past. Visitors can enjoy interactive exhibits, watch a video of Kentucky Derby through the years, view numerous artifacts from some of the most memorable races, and tour the Churchill Downs racetrack located next to the museum.

Even the youngest of derby fans can go home with souvenir apparel.
Photos: Mickie Winters

To mark one’s visit, Director of Retail Operations Kristina Gerard works behind the scenes with local vendors to “really showcase Louisville and what Louisville has to offer.”

“I like to bring in merchandise that you can’t just pop into Target and get; I want it to be where it’s definitely something different,” she explains.

Gerard relies on more than 80 local vendors to provide unique takeaways, such as Moss Hill’s bourbon-scented lotions and chapsticks, mint julep-scented lotion, and mint julep soap in the shape of the state of Kentucky.

“We like to take the everyday stuff that people need and add that Kentucky flair,” Gerard notes.

Whether it’s a pie plate adorned with the recipe for bourbon pie from Louisville Stoneware or home decor and barware by Layne Wilson or even a pair of funky socks peppered with the state of Kentucky and bourbon glasses, all tip their hats to the Kentucky Derby.

Learning another language

And speaking of hats, Gerard says baseball caps are a bestseller, but they’re typically not what people think of when it comes to derby hats.

Hat makers known as Milliners commit to a one-year contract to showcase their talents selling what Gerard refers to as “wide-brim, floppy hats,” fascinators and mini fascinators.

Gerard says it takes some special credentials and a fashion dictionary to learn the various fabrics and embellishments used in hat-making — something she never encountered in her previous retail jobs.

After 13 years, however, Gerard is well-versed in hat lingo and even gets to try her hand in designing pieces that can only be purchased in the Kentucky Derby Museum Gift Shop.

Though not your typical “derby hat,” baseball caps are a bestseller at the Kentucky Derby Museum Gift Shop.

“I actually work one-on-one with our hat vendors on designing hats,” Gerard explains. “So, when you come to us for a hat, no one will have the exact trim or the exact style that we carry here.”

And it’s not only women who embrace the hat-wearing tradition for the derby.

“Men’s hats are actually on the rise,” she says. “Fedoras are the main style that men love.”

Gerard says Dorfman Milano is the store’s go-to vendor for men’s hats, which has outfitted celebrities, including Bruno Mars, George Clooney and Toby Keith.

Hats range anywhere from $50 to several hundred dollars, which makes it an attainable souvenir for anyone with the various price points.

Licensed to logo

The museum store certainly carries traditional souvenirs; however, any souvenirs affiliated with the Kentucky Derby must be licensed.

“Anything that has Kentucky Derby or Churchill Downs on it or it has that logo everyone knows, it has to be officially licensed through Churchill Downs,” Gerard explains.

For instance, Gerard works with Columbia Sportswear to pick out T-shirts and fleece jackets that will sell well in fun colors and represent both brands well.

Gerard estimates the gift shop carries products from about 40 national vendors, including Radley London designer handbags and Vineyard Vines, a clothing and accessory retailer.

While the museum is open year-round, the Kentucky Derby takes place on the first Saturday in May when crowds swell to a whopping 155,000, according to the derby’s official website. Gerard notes the shop is off to the races between Valentine’s Day until race day every year.

In peak season, Gerard’s team swells to more than 40 associates. In comparison, she notes there may be only five or 10 associates in December and January, which she considers their slow time. “But it actually works out really well because a lot of our associates are in school or they’re retired, so they’re here to have fun and enjoy the horses,” she says.

Bourbon abounds

As long of a history as the Kentucky Derby has, bourbon has an equally impressive lineage, particularly in Kentucky, which is known for its distilleries. The derby museum gift shop gives a nod to the beverage with a wide-ranging selection of bourbon.

Apparel displays fill the center The Kentucky Derby Museum Store, while tons of unique gifts line the walls.

“One thing we’ve worked really hard on is trying to find not only the bourbon everyone loves like the day-to-day brands, but the ones that maybe people aren’t aware of or new ones that are coming out,” Gerard notes. “There are other smaller distilleries out there that we’re trying to showcase and have fun with.”

She says while Woodford Reserve will always be offered, as they are a Kentucky Derby partner and an amazing option, one recent addition called Brough Brothers has become one of their top-selling brands. She points out that adding variety to the wall in the gift shop dedicated to bourbon also helps connect customers with the flavor they desire.

“We have a couple of people on our team that love bourbon and they’re sort of our ambassadors on the sales floor,” Gerard explains. “And we really try to educate the customer with information based on what they’re looking for because every bourbon has a different flavor in the taste profile.”

For those who want the taste of bourbon without the alcohol, bourbon-infused barbecue sauces, caramel corn, chocolates, chocolate sauce and spices are sure to delight.

Gerard notes that the connection to bourbon is important because the museum hosts bourbon-themed tours and events, “so it ties everything together.”

While a typical bottle at the store sells for $50 to $80, a limited-edition set commemorating Secretariat’s Triple Crown sweep 50 years ago is currently being offered for $750, which includes an anniversary medallion, 50th anniversary julep cup and 50th anniversary tac pin.

Keep it simple

But most of the items that people desire from the gift shop don’t have hefty price tags.

One of the most sought-after pieces for both men and women are simply “dirty horseshoes.”

“It’s a legit horseshoe that was worn on the track by a horse and we sell them. People love them,” Gerard says. “And then what’s really fun is we also have another version that usually the women like to get called a bejeweled horseshoe.”

Louisville-based artist, Scooter Davidson, takes the horseshoes and adds a variety of colors and jewels to make themed pieces for sports fans of the University of Louisville, the University of Kentucky and other special events, including the Kentucky Derby.

“Her official vendor LLC is Behind the Barn Door, but really people know her as the ‘Bejeweled Horseshoe Woman,’” Gerard quips.

And because the horseshoes are small enough to fit in a suitcase, they just make good sense to carry for people who travel far and wide to visit the iconic track that hosts the Kentucky Derby.

Gerard notes that identifying products that are small enough for tourists to travel home with is half the battle.
“A lot of places don’t need to think like that because when people go shopping, they’re from that town so they just need to put it in their car and take it home,” she explains. “But for us the challenge is making sure not only are the products amazing, but that they can take it on the plane with them.”

Gerard adds that the secret to success in sales is being bold in selections and relying on local artisans to contribute to the cause.

“Don’t forget about your community and how great it is,” she says. “There are artisans out there and people out there who are producing great items every day and being able to find them, connect with them and showcase them in a way that they probably wouldn’t be able to do themselves really lets them grow.”

Done correctly, local artisans are not the only ones to benefit from taking chances as a destination retailer.

“Allow yourself to have fun and bring in different things,” Gerard stresses. “Know that not everything is going to stick, but you will find things that will work and you’ll be able to grow from that.”