What is the History of Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, has a long and rich history that dates back over 100 years. Before you head to the track to watch the race in person or you tune in on TV, keep reading for just a short brief of the history of Churchill Downs so you’ll know how the historic racetrack came to be.

The vision

During 1872, Col. M. Lewis Clark, who was just 26-years-old at the time, got the idea for a Louisville Jockey Club, so he did his research by visiting with those already prominent in the industry, and his vision started to take shape. Once he returned, he started working on establishing the track that would eventually be known as Churchill Downs in an area that already had a love of horses – Louisville, Kentucky.

The initial funding
There were some in 1874 who took issue with the idea of the track because another one by the Falls City Racing Association had already been proposed. However, Clark and his group powered through with plans. In order to raise money to build the track, Clark sold 320 memberships to the track at $100 each which gave him $32,000 to work with. He was able to lease 80 acres of land from his uncles – Henry and John Churchill – where he would set up what today is one of the best horse tracks in the world.

The opening

The track officially opened on May 17, 1875 to a crowd of almost 10,000 people. The Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Clark Handicap actually started in 1875 as the inaugural race meet at Churchill Downs. All were designed after three major races in England and still continue today. There were four races on opening day, one of which was the Kentucky Derby, and the first ever winner was a 3-year-old chestnut colt named Aristides who was owned by H.P. McGrath and beat out 14 other horses for the title. The horse was trained and ridden by two African-Americans: Ansel Williamson as the trainer, and Oliver Lewis as the jockey. The course initially started as 1.5 miles, but was shorted in 1896 to 1.25 miles. It wasn’t until 1952 that the Kentucky Derby was televised for the first time.

Churchill Downs History

Financial issues

Churchill Downs faced some financial issues over the years which resulted in several shifts in management as well as having renovations done to try to draw in more crowds. It wasn’t until 1903 when the track started to make a profit for the first time since its opening 28-years before. The Louisville Racing Association was formed in 1907 in an effort to establish a more structured way of doing things by incorporating policies and setting up race dates. The holding company, the Kentucky Jockey Club, was formed later on in 1919.

The renovations

There have been an exorbitant amount of renovations done over the years, including a $25 million renovation in the 1980s that involved installing a $3.2 million Matt Winn Turf Course among other changes and improvements. It was those changes that brought the Breeders’ Cup to the track not once or twice, but six times. Starting in 2002, more renovations started with improvements that included more luxury areas, box seats, and meeting areas, a new media center, and new dining and entertainment areas in addition to several other major changes.

The Kentucky Derby betting odds at Churchill Downs have never been postponed or canceled due to inclement weather, so every year you’ll have a chance to see “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” while you drink a mint julep and wait for the winner to have the garland of 554 roses draped over it. It’s truly an amazing event.

March 28, 2015 by : Posted in history No Comments

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