Louisville Based Business Owner Doug Dearen Builds His Passion For Horse Racingand The Kentucky Derby Into The Thriving Travel Company Derbybox

By Jonathan Widran

Back in high school, when Doug Dearen would skip out on classes to place bets on horses at Churchill Downs, he was just having fun, seeing what he could get away with. He had no idea that this historic venue and its legendary and world famous annual event, The Kentucky Derby, would someday come to define his life.

As the future founder and CEO of Derby Box, the country’s only full time thoroughbred racing travel and tour company that specializes in providing premium seating and packages centered around the event, he wishes he could paint things all rosy (as in Run for the Roses) and say his first experience at the actual Derby as a teenager was a winner. But it wasn’t. He didn’t enjoy himself at all. He wanted to see the race, but my friends wanted to go to the Infield, where the crowd cared more about drinking and partying. A few years later, the year he graduated from Eastern Kentucky University, his dad took him, his mom and 3 sisters (decked out in the classic hats we all recognize as part of the cultural celebration) to the Derby, where they sat in a box seat in the clubhouse.

The enthralling experience changed Dearen’s life—and he’s dedicated most of his professional career to offering people around the world mementoes of the Derby or the potential for similar once in a lifetime in person experiences. After working for seven years as a licensed product manager for the Louisville Manufacturing Company, selling everything from Derby T-shirts and hats to mint julep glasses to huge retail chains, he ventured out and formed his own company, Thoroughbred Traditions Inc; one of the firm’s signature items was a limited edition mint julep glasses signature series, featuring autographs by the Derby’s winning jockeys.

“Throughout my years working for Louisville Manufacturing and my own company, I would invariably be asked by many high end clients if I could use my connections to help them score tickets,” says Dearen, who will be attending his 33rd consecutive Kentucky Derby on May 7, 2011. “Tickets were hard to find and these clients were important, so I learned how and where to find the best values and developed an expertise on the marketplace for all things related to the Derby. When I started the travel component of my business, I thought it would be a seasonal thing, an April only phenomenon and sideline to my overall merch business. But it quickly evolved into a year round enterprise, with people from all over the world interested in coming to this race and being part of the surrounding festival experience leading up to it.

“From booking hotel rooms to letting them know where to shop for hats, there’s a lot to plan for everyone—clients, friends, large associations—and we found that people wanted to plan it a year in advance,” he adds. “We quickly found that a huge portion of our business was people who had never been to the Derby before but considered it a lifelong dream. They would tell us they didn’t know anything about Louisville, where to go, where to eat, where to stay, where to park, so we decided to take a leap of faith. I wondered, could this one event support and provide for my family? Over the past eleven years since launching www.derbybox.com, the business has exceeded my wildest expectations.”

With offices just across the Ohio River from downtown Louisville in Jeffersonville, Indiana, DerbyBox is a local travel company that is now the recognized leader in all-inclusive Kentucky Derby travel packages and preferred seating for the Derby and its companion race event, Kentucky Oaks, which races three year old fillies (female horses) the day before the main event and draws over 100,000 attendees annually.

Taking great pride in providing preferred seating, guaranteed tickets, distinctive accommodations (including hooking up deals where travelers stay at the homes of local residents   instead of at fancy hotels), key information, advice and the finest in customer service, the company truly offers an unforgettable all-around experience and lives up to the promise on their site: “We make Derby Dreams come true.” Over the years, it’s been Dearen’s experience that around 8 a.m. outside Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, there are multiple cries of “Kentucky Derby tickets, I need two Kentucky Derby Tickets.” Those who know and trust DerbyBox are never left out in the cold.

As the website explains: “The Kentucky Derby ticket is a very diverse thing. There are Kentucky Derby tickets for Grandstand. There are Kentucky Derby tickets for Clubhouse. There are Kentucky Derby tickets for Infield and there are Kentucky Derby tickets for Millionaires Row. Horsemen, corporations, families and government have had Kentucky Derby tickets in their possession for over 130 years, which helps make this one of the most difficult tickets to obtain in all of sports. Getting the Kentucky Derby Ticket to suit your needs and budget is one of DerbyBox.Com's main concerns.”

Because it was established with the overall thoroughbred racing fan in mind, the company is dedicated to the welfare of the racing industry in general and aims not only to accommodate the needs of existing racing fans but also introduce the sport to as many potential new fans as possible. In addition to providing exclusive packages for the Kentucky Derby, DerbyBox also offers similar deals for the Breeder’s Cup.

In addition to its new and regular U.S. based clientele, the company regularly sells packages to travelers from Canada, Mexico and England, and has others who fly in from places as diverse as Czech Republic and Poland. For the 2011 event, there are 40 people flying in from Australia. Some just come for the long weekend, arriving Thursday and leaving Sunday, while others may come in for the entire two week Kentucky Derby Festival that precedes race day. It’s very much the Louisville equivalent of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras season.

The festival, which was launched as a week-long event in 1935 by the Kentucky Derby Festival Association, includes such events as Thunder Over Louisville, the largest annual fireworks display in North America; the Great Balloon Race; the Great Steamboat Race, featuring the Belle of Louisville; the Pegasus Parade, one of the largest parades in the U.S.; and the Derby Marathon and mini-Marathon.

Events vary somewhat from year to year but always include numerous athletic events, concerts, fashion shows, wine tastings, luncheons and private parties ranging from backyard barbecues to lavish Derby Eve balls attended by entertainment stars, famed athletes and other persons of note. Recognition is given to Louisville's hardworking restaurant employees with the Run for the Rosé. Waiters and waitresses run an obstacle course while carrying trays of glasses filled with White Zinfandel Wine. Servers finishing with the best time and most wine remaining in the glasses win prizes.

For clients who want to learn more about the horses and how they are bred, DerbyBox also arranges horse farm tours up the road in Lexington.

Aside from offering the best tickets and packages, Dearen believes the unprecedented growth of DerbyBox is due to several factors: 1) relationships his company has established with horse farms, corporations and individuals who purchase packages every year; 2) his personal touch, which includes physically greeting many customers he has previously only dealt with on the phone or online; and 3) going the extra service mile, from arranging for women to get their hair and nails done to renting limos and vans to the event.

“Another major aspect of our success is the fact that no other company devotes 365 days a year to Kentucky Derby Tour and Travel,” says Dearen. “Most of your sports travel companies are based in major cities like L.A., New York and Chicago and deal with Super Bowl, Final Four and Masters. The Derby is small potatoes to them. Any book you read about building a successful business will tell you what we have done—which is doing one specific thing well, and making sure it’s something you enjoy. Early on, our search engine presence was always strong because this is what we focused on.

“We’re a member of the National Association of Ticket Brokers, which allows us access to tickets for other major events, from the Super Bowl to the Final Four to NFL and Major League baseball games,” he adds. “But we have branded ourselves as a full service thoroughbred racing travel company and are proud of our commitment to the Derby and the wonderful city of Louisville.”

Dearen, who was born in North Carolina and moved with his dad’s business transfers everywhere from Chicago to Michigan to Indiana before settling in the family’s original home state of Kentucky, remembers that his original position at Louisville Manufacturing Company was as an advertising specialist for corporations like Purina, John Deere and Caterpillar. An opportunity in their horse racing merchandising division opened a door to express his lifelong passion and led to a life fulfilling the dreams for other enthusiasts.

“DerbyBox is about bringing enjoyment to people and enabling them to do something they have looked forward to doing for their whole lives,” says Dearen. “We’re not just giving them a ticket and sending them in the gates. We go the extra mile to help them create an experience they will remember their entire lives. Beyond bringing this joy to our clients, the thing I find most rewarding is that I took a risk with this business and created a full time entity that has grown beyond my wildest expectations. It’s a crazy, full time business and there’s no spring break for me in April, when I work 18 or 20 hour days. We’re selling next year’s packages even while this year’s event is going on. But I have had so many amazing and unique experiences working with people as the President of DerbyBox that I could write a book about it. In fact, I think it’s time I do just that.”

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