The History of Churchill Downs

history of churchill downs and the Kentucky derby

Churchill Downs has been home to the most exciting 2 minutes of racing since 1875.  Churchill Downs was named after John and Henry Churchill, who leased the land to their nephew, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr (grandson of William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark team).

The Founding of Churchill Downs

Churchhill Downs Kentucky derby StadiumWhen Clark founded Churchill Downs, Kentucky’s thoroughbred horse racing and breeding industry was in decline.  Kentucky was damaged by the civil war, but Clark was looking for a way to revitalize the horse industry.  Clark started the Louisville Jockey Club and sold subscriptions to the track to fund its construction.  In May of 1875, the race track had its debut with four races, The Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oats, Clark Handicap and Falls City.  The track brought in 10,000 spectators.

The track was purchased by investors in 1894, as it was drifting into debt.  The new owner ordered the construction of a new grandstand.  What is now the iconic Twin Spire grandstand, was built in 1895, and is the most recognizable architectural feature in racing history.

The track was sold again in 1902 to a group of Louisville natives, including a former mayor, Charles Grainger. It was Matt Winn, a tailor, motivated by his passion for the Derby, who was the public relations genius that helped bring the track back to its original prestige.  Winn commissioned an elite clubhouse for the Louisville gentry, who paid $100 for membership.  As a result, the track turned its first profit in 1903.

The track raised to fame with 3 races that broke track records:

  • 1913 the longest shot to win the Kentucky Derby, Donerail, generated the highest payout on a $2 bet at almost $185.
  • 1914, Rosebud set the track speed record.
  • 1915 Regret became the first filly to win the Derby.

That series of races solidified the Kentucky Derby as a preeminent sporting event.

In 1952, CBS aired the first national telecast of the Derby.  For the first time, people outside of Churchill Downs could see the most exciting two minutes in sports.

Multiple ownership changes and reorganization lead to growth and diversification.  Churchill Downs would see a new series of improvements including a new jockey’s quarters, a press box, additional seating, including what is now known as Millionaire’s Row.  The 1970’s brought in modernization of the track with the creation of steel emergency stairways and refurbishing the stable area.   More than $10 million had been invested in the track over those 15 years.

Today, covering 147 acres, Churchill Downs has a seating capacity of 51,000, but during the Kentucky Derby, crowds can reach 150,000.  The dirt track, which the 1.25 mile Kentucky Derby is run, is one mile and 80 feet wide.  Along with the track, club house and stables, Churchill Downs also houses the Kentucky Derby Museum, which is open to visitors all year.

Fun Derby race trivia:

  • Secretariat set the track speed record in 1973 at 1:59:4
  • Jockey Eddie Arcaro rode in the derby 21 times and won 5 times.
  • Bill Hartack has ridden in the Derby 12 times, and won 5 times
  • The Kentucky Derby is always the first Saturday in May and the first race of the Triple Crown.

See our commemorative Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs Banners

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