Before he knew what the Louisville Thoroughbred Society would look like, or where it would be, racing fan Gene McLean knew exactly how the club should feel. “My wife and I were married in Argentina, and I was out walking around one day in Buenos Aires,” says McLean, a racing journalist and fan with a long history in the sport. “We’d been to the racetrack the day before, and I was walking in the downtown of one of the world’s most beautiful cities. I turned a corner and saw a brass plaque on a building that said ‘Turf Club.’ Naturally, I walked right in. A gentleman came up and I told him I’m just interested in maybe taking a look. I showed him my Kentucky horse owner’s racing license, and it was like I’d showed him the key to the city. They rolled out the red carpet.”

McLean says the Argentinian décor was beautiful. “So rich in culture. So rich in history. The photographs on the wall told their story. Famous horses. A lot of polo players,” recalls McLean. “And the leather chairs. The place has that wonderful oiled-leather smell, that horse feel to it. More than just seeing it – it was feeling it.”

Years went by, but McLean didn’t forget the Turf Club in Buenos Aires: “One day, my horse partner, Mike Schnell, called me up and said, ‘Hey, listen, we just bought a building downtown. You ought to come take a look. I think this thing might work out for what you’re talking about.’ ”

And suddenly, the other part of the dream fell into place – melding McLean’s horse club feel with Schnell’s perfect place to make the Louisville Thoroughbred Society. Work is underway now as the 145th Kentucky Derby unfolds, with memberships being taken and the club scheduled to open this fall at 209 East Main Street in the heart of the Whiskey Row boomtown in downtown Louisville.

“It’s right here where everything is happening,” says Schnell, a concrete contractor and racehorse owner. “It’s this beautiful old building, brought right up to date. About halfway between the KFC Yum! Center and Louisville Slugger Field, with all the new distilleries and hotels popping up every day.”

And it’s a location close to the downtown turf of many Louisville professional and financial people – no small number of whom own Thoroughbred race horses.

The Louisville Thoroughbred Society is limited to 1,400 members with a $495 initiation fee and a $1,595 yearly membership fee. There is also an Investor membership level with varying commitments and benefits.

“It’s really open to anyone who’s looking for a premium downtown club, but it’s specialized toward the Thoroughbred industry,” McLean explains. “That means members have the ability to come to the club and watch television racing simulcasts from around the country.”

And probably from around the globe too, looking in on the famous European and worldwide classics. Additionally, the club hopes to be tied into wagering at Churchill Downs.

“It’ll be very similar to the Turf Club at the track, except it’ll be off premises,” McLean offers. “And we’re creating it with just that kind of imagery – the high end, with all the TV monitors and elegant accommodations as you’d find at a race course and private club.”

McLean, a Bluegrass boy from Midway, Kentucky, was a fledgling sports writer with the Lexington Herald-Leader when he covered his first Kentucky Derby – with a press box seat assignment next to the legendary columnist Red Smith. He later served as executive vice president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, an industry advocacy group, and now authors the website The Press Box at the Louisville Thoroughbred Society. The Press Box (thepressboxlts.com) is packed with racing commentary, club news … and even an occasion winner!

McLean and Schnell also have a model for their Louisville society in a club located just across a country lane from Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington. That’s the popular Thoroughbred Club of America, housed in a spiffed-up farm house with a large grassy lawn, pretty trees and lots of flowers, all set in Bluegrass horse country.

An idyllic scene, but not one readily available near Churchill Downs – and not really what the partners envisioned for a more urban city. Mares and foals dancing across pastures certainly offer a beautiful visage, but Louisville is happening!

“Our interest level spiked greatly with the renaissance going on in downtown Louisville,” says McLean. “The explosion of construction and renovation, the expansion of the Convention Center, the new Omni Hotel and so many boutique hotels opening near Whiskey Row. Downtown Louisville is very similar to Nashville with the amount of renovation and reinvestment going on. It’s such a dynamic place right now, and we’re right in the mix.”

Schnell notes that Churchill Downs is open four months of the year, but racing fever burns pretty much all the time in Louisville. He also sees a year-round whirl of concerts and ballgames and nightlife – and the daytime downtown life of the city – as the perfect backdrop for the Louisville Thoroughbred Society.

“We’re going to have a dining room with an executive style lunch, say from 11:30 to 2,” says Schnell. “The rest of the day, there’ll be appetizer-type food and a bar, but we’re not a country club where you go to have dinner. Louisville has plenty of great restaurants and we don’t need to compete with them. But the lunch crowd downtown, if you’re a banker, lawyer, it’s a nice private lunch. I think there’s a demand from the corporate standpoint.”

And after the workday, with University of Louisville basketball games and concerts at the KFC Yum! Center, the club could offer kind of a haven – with a parking garage. “Better than being 15-deep at the Troll Bar, trying to get a drink,” Schnell says with a laugh. For big attendance events, the Thoroughbred Society may offer a catered buffet.

“The turf club we’re looking for is not a stereotypical men’s club,” says Schnell. “I think we’re beyond that in this society. And you don’t have to be 70 years old. Gene and I discussed this. We want to be a club of young, energetic, business professionals, women, couples…”

The Louisville Thoroughbred Club will occupy the entire second floor of the historic six-story Fetzer Building on Main between Second and Third.

It’s the typical tall and deep brick business building one finds downtown along Main and Market Streets. Schnell and his real estate partner, Dave Steinbrecher, cleaned away decades from the front brick façade, framing tall glass windows. It brings alive that “going up” look that flowered in American cities at the turn of the 20th century, hinting at the Skyscraper Age to come.

Lumberman E. L. Hughes built the building to house his family’s door and sash business, and McLean says he imagines the place as a kind of “vertical lumberyard.” Hughes used his knowledge of lumber to frame the building, and inside, with all the old plaster and pipes and wiring removed, the “bones” of the building are revealed. The floors are lifted with massive western pine supports, 15×15 thick, and long, hewn-poplar timbers support the ceilings front to back. Much of the hardwood flooring is laid diagonally, which is a pretty sharp look.

All of which is what everyone hoped to find, says Schnell’s daughter Erica Outlaw, who operates the Ice House next door and Crushed Ice Catering Co. She’s also an investor in the Louisville Thoroughbred Society.

“There really wasn’t much that had to be done to it,” says Outlaw. “When they got the wallboard and stuff taken down, the building was brick and wood in all their glory. We just love it the way it is.”

Schnell says the next owner after Hughes was, believe it or not, a cannery. Later, the building was purchased by Keith Fetzer to house his family’s commercial kitchen supply business.

“That’s what this neighborhood was all about, construction and building supplies,” says Schnell. “In the next block was Belknap Hardware. This building was lumber, then large-scale kitchen equipment.”

Schnell’s company tackles large stadium-size concrete renovation products, and a tour through an old building is laced with his expertise. He steers a visitor to the front of the second floor and points out shiny, bright white brick walls.

“This was Mr. Fetzer’s showroom, and he used the white brick to enhance the setting of his restaurant kitchen displays,” says Schnell. “Today we might call the look ‘subway tiles,’ but these are full masonry bricks. The white brick is also on the first floor in the lobby. We’ll leave it here. It’s so unique.”

What is not original to the Fetzer Building is a parking garage, which the old businesses didn’t require in 1906. Today, a new attached parking garage will afford parking for club members and for business and residential tenants in the upper four floors of the building. Especially neat is the rooftop of the parking garage, which will become an outdoor patio for the Louisville Thoroughbred Society – a 21st-century-style amenity.

Also located on the garage rooftop is a separated cigar pavilion that Schnell promises will be the biggest and best cigar club in the city.

The front façade is another restoration, wood and glass. A look in, and a look back in time.

“I think when someone walks into the club, they’re going to feel a little bit of that nostalgia,” says Outlaw, “that this is the old lumber house and get that Whiskey Row vibe you get in these historical buildings.”

Then talk horses!

– Bill Dolittle, Equine writer