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Horse-racing fans love to take in the fun and spectacle at the track, as galloping steeds and their jockeys thunder towards the finish line. Yet, while hundreds of guests watch the thrilling race, few realize that there are hundreds more behind the scenes, working to make sure the day goes off without a hitch.

Sarah Contardo, Vice President of Sales & Strategy for Churchill Downs, is one person who works hard to make the racing experience memorable for all. She received her marketing and finance degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, with her sights set on being a stockbroker. Her path veered, however, and she landed her first job with the Cincinnati Cyclones minor league hockey team. After a year, she joined Feld Entertainment and stayed there for 11 years before going on to work for the Cincinnati Reds for three more. She joined the Churchill Downs family five years ago.

Sarah’s days are nonstop, especially when it’s Kentucky Derby season, but she still manages to balance work and family. She’s the mother of three children — twin teenage daughters and a 9-year-old son. She’s also a board member for the Boys and Girls Club of Kentuckiana, an organization to which she’s deeply committed.

Let’s saddle up and meet this week’s FACE of Louisville, Sarah Contardo.

Sarah Contardo, Vice President of Sales & Strategy for Churchill Downs

Sarah Contardo, Vice President of Sales & Strategy for Churchill Downs and our newest FACE of Louisville

Tell us about working for Feld Entertainment and the Cincinnati Reds.

I was an event marketing and sales director at Feld Entertainment. We were responsible for ticket sales, which including anything from marketing, to setting up the box offices, to ensuring that we were the liaison for the venue and the actual shows. We got to see all different sides of the shows and worked with anything that went into making the event happen on the public side. We also oversaw PR agencies in every market, group sales, plus advertising and marketing. The Cincinnati Reds recruited me from Feld, and I started as the director of group sales. As I progressed, I moved up to the position of Senior Director of Ticketing Strategy. I was the hub between ticket sales, marketing, and corporate sales.

How did the transition to Churchill Downs occur?

While I was with the Reds, I was approached by a recruiter who asked if I’d be interested in working for the track. My initial thought was, “I’m a Cincinnati girl, and I’m not leaving Cincinnati.” I was happy working for that team. Though I wasn’t looking, I decided to talk with the people at the track, and I kind of fell in love with the concept that Churchill Downs is an important part of this community.

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Sarah Contardo, Vice President of Sales & Strategy for Churchill Downs

“There’s nothing like Derby week. If you haven’t been to Derby, it’s hard to appreciate the passion, the excitement, the grandeur and spectacle of what’s happening that week.”

Tell us about your responsibilities at the track.

I oversee all of our ticket sales, suite sales, VIP ticketing, food and beverage sales, and data strategy. I maintain our customer experiences — which includes everything from the time they purchase their tickets to parking, shuttle services, getting to the gate, scanning tickets and guest services — making sure they find what they need in a timely manner.

How do you juggle all of these different duties?

I have a fantastic leadership team. That’s what it really comes down to. They really are some of the best in the industry.

How have your past positions helped you in your current job?

I get to draw from both of my past experiences. We ask questions like, “Are we set up correctly? Do we have the right sales staff? Do we have the right strategy? And what’s happening overall in the horse-racing industry?”

Sarah Contardo, Vice President of Sales & Strategy for Churchill Downs

“Once the gates open on Derby Day it’s kind of like, ‘put on your seatbelt, and hold on,’” Sarah says. “You never really know what’s going to happen.”

What are some of the challenges you face at work?

It varies from day to day. Besides time management, I make sure that I get everyone on my team what they need in order to do their job. And if I don’t, then I’m failing them.

Give us your insight about being on the board of the Boys and Girls Club of Kentuckiana.

It’s been a great experience just being involved with a nonprofit and kind of learning the ins and outs and their mission. Being able to give back to the community is really important. I wanted to work with the Boys and Girls Club because kids are near and dear to my heart. Giving every child the best opportunity for the future and setting them up for success is super-important.

Do you have any restaurants that you enjoy?

The Main Street Bourbon and Ale House in La Grange, Gustavo’s Mexican Grill, and Verbena Café in Norton Commons.

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Sarah Contardo of Churchill Downs

“I fell in love with the leadership team at the track, their vision, and what they wanted to do in the future,” says Sarah.

Where can we find you hanging out around town?

We like to go to the Paddock Shops, the Mall St. Matthews, or we go back to Cincinnati to the Kenwood Mall. We also like to go to the movies, catch a Bats’ baseball game, or go to concerts.

Who is your mentor?

Amy Dubinsky, who was my boss when I worked at Feld. Having her as a role model and watching her navigate her way through a typically very male-dominated industry has been helpful to my career.

What is something that people would be surprised to learn about you?

I can be a goofball at times. Things can get really, really stressful, and I often say, “We’re not saving lives. We’re in the business of having fun, and I need to make sure everyone here is still having fun.” If we’re not having fun, we need to see how we can turn that around.

Sarah Contardo of Churchill Downs

“It’s rewarding when someone has an issue and you’re able to fix the problem and make it better for that customer. That is really important to us.”

What advice do you treasure?

My dad once said to me that you don’t really know a job until you’ve done it for two years. You need to stick with it to learn the job. Another piece of advice is that other people’s perception is their reality. If their perception of you is that you’re awesome, then their reality is that you’re awesome. But, if they perceive that you aren’t doing your job and slacking off, then that’s their reality and that’s how they see it.

Besides faith, family and friends what are three things you can’t live without?

My calendar, my to-do list, and music.

Thank you for chatting with us, Sarah, and thank you to Gretchen Bell of Gretchen Bell Photography for the beautiful photos! 

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