LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Within the shadows of venerable Churchill Downs, the world's most famous horse race never ends. Nor does the pageantry of the Kentucky Derby.
The Kentucky Derby Museum, situated just off Gate 1 at Churchill, offers a treasure trove of Derby memories for horse racing aficionados and people making their maiden trip to a track. The museum was closed for renovations due to flooding for the past nine months, but reopened Sunday, just in time for the Run for the Roses on May 1.
Through videos and testimonials from racing greats to regular fans, visitors soak in the Derby Day atmosphere -- from the regal millionaire's row to the raucous infield. Exhibits showcase the Derby's reputation as a giant runway for fashion -- with examples ranging from the pale pink, sequined dress worn by Anna Nicole Smith on loan to the museum to the colorful, plumed hats dotting the Derby crowd.
Interactive displays let visitors pretend they're riding hard-charging thoroughbreds, guiding them to the rail or to the outside, or making wagers on randomly chosen past races at Churchill -- though no actual money changes hands. Guests can clear their throats and call a horse race as track announcer, or test their Derby knowledge with a trivia game.
"If people aren't race fans yet, I hope ... this tempts them to watch a horse race," said museum spokeswoman Wendy Treinen. "I hope people who have been in before say, 'Wow, this place is great.' All the new technology just sucks you right in and you want to learn more."
Every Run for the Roses since 1918 can be replayed with the touch of a screen, allowing visitors to relive the Derby Day glory of longshots to Triple Crown winners.
"It's fun to see retired jockeys come in and watch their races," Treinen said.
Though the museum celebrates the Derby every day, the nonprofit attraction that draws about 210,000 visitors per year is a separate entity from Churchill Downs.
In the past year, the museum has shown the resilience of a Triple Crown winner.
Last August, the museum was swamped by flash flooding that caused more than $4 million in damage, forcing its closure. The museum reopened less than two weeks before this year's Derby, following an ambitious $5.5 million renovation.
The museum's collection of artifacts was largely spared, though a few dozen items were sent to a Chicago company specializing in restoration work.
"It was a rush to literally walk through the water to save the items as the ceiling poured in and water rose from the floor," Treinen said.
Memorabilia from races past are on display throughout the museum.
Visitors can see assorted Derby trophies awarded to winning owners and jockeys, the saddle strapped to 1948 Derby winner Citation and the halter worn by 1975 Derby victor Foolish Pleasure. There's a 1936 Derby program signed by Babe Ruth, and a Richard Nixon-signed Derby bio book replete with information about the 1969 field of Derby horses.
Meanwhile, an interactive display called "Countdown to Victory" offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the Derby. Visitors can listen to jockeys and trainers recount the preparation and emotions leading up to the big race.
Famed jockey Pat Day recalls riding onto the track before the huge Derby crowd.
"There's just so much electricity in the air, so much enthusiasm and excitement," he says in an audio interview. "It's just tangible, you can cut it with a knife."
The traditional playing of "My Old Kentucky Home" before the race will "stir emotions like no other," said renowned trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
The museum also arranges for guided walking tours of Churchill Downs. A half-hour tour includes visits to the paddock, where the horses are saddled before a race, and to the grandstand. An approximately 90-minute tour includes visits to the jockeys' quarters, millionaires' row, the press box and parts of Churchill's renovated clubhouse.
Another option is an hourlong barn and backside van tour, which allows visitors to watch horses train, catch them during a bath and learn about life at the track.
On the museum's second floor, meanwhile, visitors can trace the life of thoroughbreds -- from their wobbly first steps through their racing careers.
At one exhibit, several top trainers explain what they look for in a horse and share their philosophy in getting a spirited animal ready for a race.
Susan Walgenbach of Davis, Calif., said she hasn't really been a horse racing fan, but now plans to watch the upcoming Derby after a trip to the track and museum. Walgenbach and her husband watched some thoroughbreds work out during their track tour.
"It's great to see the horses in real life and running," she said. "That was fabulous. The best I've done is feed a horse a carrot or an apple over a fence."
Carol Brodeur of Wellfleet, Mass., said she became interested in the Derby about four years ago after attending a Derby party hosted by a Kentucky native on Cape Cod. She has watched the Run for the Roses since then.
"I wish I could hang out on millionaire's row for a day," she said.
Another treat was the colorful Kentucky spring, which produces a dazzling array of reds, pinks and whites from budding trees and shrubs, she said.
"It's just very pretty," Brodeur said.
Museum fan Duke Madsen, of Salt Lake City, said he marvels at the "amazing grace" of thoroughbreds and the history behind the sport. Madsen and his wife attended their first Derby last year, and took time for multiple tours of the museum.
They were hooked and will be back for this year's Run for the Roses, he said.
"If you have a love for the adventure of the two greatest minutes in sports, it's just remarkable to walk in and feel the vibes you get," he said of the museum.
If You Go...
KENTUCKY DERBY MUSEUM: 704 Central Ave., Louisville, Ky; http://www.derbymuseum.org or 502- 637-7097. Adults, $12; age 55 and over, $11; age 13-18, $10; age 5-12, $5; under 5, free. March 15-Nov. 30, open Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Open at 8 a.m. Sunday after Derby. Dec. 1-March 14, open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m.-5 p.m.