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Meet the woman behind the Kentucky Derby

Tonya Abeln is the personification of the Kentucky Derby, the mastermind behind Churchill Down's communication strategy.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The world calls it, “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”

Here at home, we know it simply as the Derby. It’s part of the fabric that connects all of us. And the reason we’re always so up to speed is because of the work of a Kentuckiana woman, Tonya Abeln.

Abeln is the Vice President of Corporate Communications for Churchill Downs Inc. and the president of the Churchill Downs Foundation.

Never mind her technical title. Abeln is the personification of the Kentucky Derby.

“I truly do feel like I’m living my dream in this role,” Abeln said. “I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be.”

Born in Wayne County, Kentucky, and educated at the University of Louisville, Abeln is a fashion-forward wordsmith.

She’s the mastermind behind Churchill Downs’ communication strategies and one of the most visible symbols of the Kentucky Derby.

Intentionally or not, it’s a role that was made for her.

“Growing up, the Kentucky Derby always represented something to me that is difficult to articulate but it’s something that inspired me,” Abeln said. “I remember watching with my dad and I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if we will ever go to the Kentucky Derby,’ and just being really enamored by everything that represented the Derby.”

After college, Abeln spent some time living in different parts of the country - from the Midwest to the West Coast.

“I became what I call an evangelist about Louisville, Kentucky and the Kentucky Derby,” she explained. “I would host Derby parties and mandate all of these things that people who came to the party had to do. I was very militant about it, one because I was homesick and I just wanted to get back home. But also I wanted everybody else to feel that the derby was as I felt that it was.”

Abeln assumed the communication reins for CDI in 2019, right before the world changed.

“Of course with COVID, everything was out of control and it felt like a great responsibility,” she explained. “I’m a little bit more dramatic than your average bear, I’ll admit".

Tonya said she remembers being so focused on the communication strategy that she really didn't pay attention to what was happening in the rest of the world until the day they made the announcement. 

"I think that when you are in the world of communication and you care the way we do about the message, and about the content, you want everyone else to care as you do,” she said.

Abeln’s job is to actively share the experience of all things Derby.

With that, her work is aligned with her personal purpose. And that makes her Kentuckiana Proud.

“I think human connection is the most important thing to me. And whether that’s through my role in communications with the community, whether it’s being a mother, through my friendships, I think when you can leave the world a kinder place, that is something that I will always be most proud of.”

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