Considering last year's horse racing season brought the first Triple Crown in more than three decades, this year's Kentucky Derby has quite the act to follow. You don't have to tell Randy Prasse, the newly appointed senior director of operations at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
Even though he was just hired in January, however, Prasse is luckily no rookie at organizing and putting together big events. After all, he worked four years as executive director of the East Town Association before spending an additional four years in Wisconsin as executive director of the Wisconsin State Fair from 2004 to 2009 – a gig that, much like his current job, gave him more than his fair share of wild life to work with.
Before the big race takes off tonight at 5:34 p.m., OnMilwaukee had a quick chat with Prasse about taking on one of the biggest events in the sports world, how his past experience in Milwaukee helps his present work and why he's jealous his boss has poop on his desk.
OnMilwaukee: Where did your interest in horses and/or horse racing come from?
Randy Prasse: I was actually born and raised as the fifth generation on a family farm. We had horses, and my grandfather was a horse trainer and a horse trader of sorts. Not thoroughbreds for racing but horses nonetheless
What was it like watching American Pharaoh's Triple Crown run? Did you think it was actually going to happen after the Derby?
I joined Churchill Downs in January, so I missed American Pharaoh – but Triple Crown winners come in clusters, so maybe 2016 will be the second one!
How did your time up in Milwaukee with the Wisconsin State Fair and the East Town Association prepare you for working at Churchill Downs?
An event is a series of operations – admissions, security, public safety, vendors, sponsors, guest convenience, ATMs, restrooms, food and beverage, and engagement – it all rolls up into the guest's experience. In that sense, there are similar pieces that just have to be scaled to the size of the event. I have produced a craft beer event for 1,000 people to the Wisconsin State Fair with one million people. Again, same functions, just different scale.
What's it like helping put on such a storied event like the Kentucky Derby?
Very humbling. Having grown up watching the Derby, like everyone else, it is amazing to be able to use my career experiences to make an impact on an event like the Kentucky Derby. Really, though, from an inside perspective, it really is produced like any other event. We of course are very cognizant of the heritage and tradition – and that millions will be watching the most exciting two minutes in sports all over the world!
How do you deal with the balance of keeping the history and tradition of the Derby while also keeping it fresh, modern and exciting?
It is a lot like the State Fair in that sense; people say they don't want anything to change, yet they ask, "Hey, what's new this year?" We keep the tradition and experience in the forefront with the understanding that people receive their marketing messages, make buying decisions and expect modern amenities – all set against the backdrop of tradition at Churchill Downs.
Take me through the preparation for the Derby. How early do you start prepping? And what's it like the week and the day of?
This is a year-round planning process; there is no magic wand that gets waved a month before. People don't understand the work and thought before the work begins. At the State Fair, I used to tell people that we work 354 days to be able to enjoy the 11 days of the State Fair. That is very similar to the Kentucky Derby. We have people that have told me that this is their 25th Derby, 40th Derby, even a few that have been here for 50 Derbies!
Any particular fun stories from behind the scenes?
Not yet. Check with me in a few hours when I get my first Derby under my belt! My boss does have a sample of poop from American Pharoah sitting on his desk. Jealous.
Do you get to work with the horses at all?
Not directly, but I have access to the barns and paddock area.
I'm not sure you're allowed to say, but do you have a favorite or prediction in the race?
I have a gut feeling about Majesto – for what it's worth.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.