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The History of Churchill Downs
Horse racing in Kentucky is rich in history, dating back to 1789 when the first race course was laid out in Lexington.
However, it was almost 100 years later, in 1875, that Churchill Downs officially opened and began its tradition as “Home of the Kentucky Derby.”
The Founding of Churchill Downs began in 1872, when Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark traveled to England and France in 1872.
Clark attended the Epsom Derby in England, which sparked his ambition to create a spectacle horse racing event in America.
Upon his return to the states, Clark began the development of the racetrack.
with intentions to showcase the Kentucky breeding industry that eventually became known as “Churchill Downs.”
The track was constructed on eighty acres of land
The track was constructed on eighty acres of land that Clark leased from his uncles, John and Henry Churchill, approximately three miles south of downtown Louisville.
To fund the initial construction, Clark raised money by selling membership subscriptions to the track.
With 320 membership subscriptions sold for $100 each, Clark raised a total of $32,000.
This profit was used to construct a clubhouse, grandstand, Porter’s Lodge, and six stables on site for the opening of the track.
Throughout the years, the initial structures still stand, but the racetrack has continued to grow and modernize.
Today, Churchill Downs spans 147 acres with its most significant structure being the Twin Spires.
an architectural feature which sits atop the grandstand and has become the universally recognized symbol for Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby.
Churchill Downs had its first official race day
Churchill Downs had its first official race day, which formally opened the track on May 17, 1875.
For the opening meet, Clark created three major stakes races- the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and Clark Handicap.
These were modeled after three premier races in England- the Epsom Derby, Epsom Oaks and St. Leger Stakes.
The winner of the first race was Bonaventure; however the winner of the day’s featured race, the Kentucky Derby, was a three-year-old chestnut colt, Aristides.
Owned by H.P. McGrath, Aristides was trained by and ridden by two African-Americans, Ansel Williamson and Oliver Lewis.
A crowd reaching 10,000 spectators witnessed the fifteen thoroughbreds run the first 1.5 mile long Kentucky Derby.
Aristides’ victory launched a tradition that has been held continuously at Churchill Downs annually since their debut in 1875.
Today, Churchill Downs Racetrack is owned and operated by Churchill Downs Incorporated.
Churchill Downs currently holds the record for the longest-running, continuous sporting event in the United States.
A Beginner’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby
If you’ve opened this story you probably are interested in the Kentucky Derby but might not know a whole lot about horse racing or the Triple Crown. That’s OK – we’re here to help.
The Kentucky Derby is the most-watched horse race of the year in the United States and is widely considered one of the most important sporting events in the country.
having grown to become much more than just a horse race since Aristides won the first edition in 1875.
The Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve is the first jewel of the Triple Crown.
a series of races that includes the Preakness Stakes two weeks later in Baltimore and concludes with the Belmont Stakes three weeks after that in New York.
The 13 horses that have won all three races are known as Triple Crown winners, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Starting with the basics of who, what, when, where, and why, and then spreading out from there, let’s explore the Kentucky Derby.
Three fillies (female 3-year-old racehorses) have won the Kentucky Derby: Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980), and Winning Colors (1988).
WHAT: The ‘Run for the Roses’
The Kentucky Derby is often called the run for the roses because the winner has a blanket of roses draped over his/her back after the race.
As mentioned above, the Kentucky Derby is only for 3-year-olds and limited to 20 starters.
The race itself is a 1 ¼-mile race on a dirt main track that is a test of both speed and stamina.
what racetrack hosts the kentucky derby?
about this track
Churchill Downs, located on Central Avenue in Louisville, Ky., is a Thoroughbred racetrack most famous for hosting the Kentucky Derby.
It officially opened in 1875, and held the first Kentucky Derby and the first Kentucky Oaks that same year.
(grandson of explorer William Clark).
Clark was president of the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association, which formed in 1874.
His father-in-law, Richard Ten Broeck, was an accomplished horse breeder and trainer.
and introduced Clark to horse racing, attending the English Derby at Epsom Downs outside London.
Churchill Downs filled a void in Louisville left by the closing of Oakland
Churchill Downs filled a void in Louisville left by the closing of Oakland and Woodlawn, two earlier race courses.
The then-rural location was located along the Louisville and Nashville Railroad tracks, allowing for easy transport of horses.
Clark, who preferred longer races to the relatively short ones that had become popular by the 1890s, was running short of funds, and in 1893 sold the track to a syndicate led by William Applegate.
The new ownership would soon institute many changes, such as shortening the length of the signature race to its modern distance of a mile and one quarter (10 furlongs),
commissioning the famous twin spire grandstand in 1895, and adorning the winner of the Derby with a garland of roses, a tradition that also began in 1895.
In early 1902, Applegate turned over operation of the track to Charles F.
WHY: Inspired Abroad
The history of the Kentucky Derby originates in 1872, when the aforementioned Meriwether Lewis Clark traveled to Europe and attended the Epsom Derby in England.
a race run since 1780, and met members of the French Jockey Club.
Inspired by his trip and experience in Europe, he set out to create a similar racing event in the U.S.
Gifted the land to develop a racetrack and, after formally organizing the Louisville Jockey Club, Clark and his new club raised the funding to build Churchill Downs in Louisville.
On May 17, 1875, the track opened its gates for the first time and the Louisville Jockey Club sponsored the inaugural Kentucky Derby.
Fifteen 3-year-old Thoroughbred racehorses competed in the 1 ½-mile race in front of approximately 10,000 fans with Aristides prevailing.
In the years since that first running.
the Kentucky Derby has evolved and become the most important event on the racing calendar as well as the main focus of horse racing fans every spring.
a time when 3-year-old racehorses frequently mature mentally and develop physically into elite athletes.