Churchill Downs History

Kentucky Derby / Churchill Downs History

Kentucky may have been an unusual place for the start of something as big as the Kentucky Derby has become going into 2014, but using a little horse-sense, it becomes quickly apparent that it took a visionary such as Colonel M. Lewis Clark to set the pace.

Prior to building Churchill Downs, horse racing in Kentucky had a rich racing history dating back to 1789 when the first race course was laid out in Lexington. Even before this date, folks were “road horse racing” down Louisville’s Market Street and Lexington’s Main Street in 1783. It took nearly 100 more years, until 1875, that Churchill Downs officially opened and began the tradition as we know it of being the “Home of the Kentucky Derby.”

To finance the construction of the track, Clark raised $32,000 by selling 320 exclusive memberships to the track at $100 each. Eighty acres of land, about three miles south of downtown Louisville were leased from Clark’s uncles, John and Henry Churchill. A clubhouse, grandstand, porter’s lodge, and six stables were built on the site for the opening of the track that they called Churchill Downs.

History of Churchill Downs

The track’s debut took place on May 17, 1875 with only four races scheduled; the feature race being the Kentucky Derby. The winner of the first ever race at the track was named Bonaventure, however the winner of the day’s featured race was a three-year-old colt called Aristides. Owned by H.P. McGrath, Aristides was trained and ridden by two African-Americans, Ansel Williamson and Oliver Lewis. All their respective names have gone down in history.

Thanks to the efforts of Colonel Clark and his uncles, and men like E. Berry Wall, also known as “The King of the Dudes” for being so dapper, and who presented roses to the ladies at the fancy post race parties, that the Kentucky Derby also became known as the “Run for the Roses”. To continue the theme of roses, it was in 1896 that a blanket of roses was first placed onto the back of the Derby winner. The rose is the official flower of the Derby and winning still smells sweet!

March 12, 2014 by : Posted in history No Comments

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