Churchill Downs: Kentucky's Famous Race Track
Churchill Downs is a racetrack for Thoroughbred horses,
located in Louisville, Kentucky. The track is most well-known for hosting the
Kentucky Derby, one of the most popular annual horse races in America.
The track, which opened in 1875 is named after Henry and
John Churchill, two brothers that owned the land which was later leased to
their Nephew, Colonel Merriwhether Lewis Clark Jr, the grandson of famous
explorer William Clark.
Clark owned a Louisville Jockey Club for horseback riding
enthusiasts and was able to get business booming for the track. After all, the
new Churchill Downs in town was filling a void in the towns soul after two
other popular race tracks closed down.
Horseback racing was extremely popular in Kentucky and
Clark knew the city was hungry for a new place to gather to watch the races
Clark preferred somewhat longer races to ones that were
becoming more popular in the late 1880’s – shorter races and eventually started
to run low on finances. Clark sold the track in 1893 to a group led by William
Applegate. Following Applegate’s lead, the group started to institute changes
to the race, including shortening the length of the race to the length the
horses still run to today – a mile and a quarter long.
Location, Location, Location
The track was initially chosen for this location because
when Louisville, KY was still fairly rural in all aspects, the acreage was
centrally located by two major railroad tracks, the Nashville and Louisville
tracks. This prime location made it easy to transport the horses and drew in
more racers and spectators.
Churchill Downs is located on Central Avenue in
Louisville, which is today one of the largest and most populated cities in
Kentucky and all of the Midwest.
To the Mayor goes the Spoils
In the early 1900’s, Applegate was noticing that the
business was sinking due in large to the fact that the location was being
recognized mainly for its gambling proclivities. In 1902, Applegate decided to
sell the track off to the current Mayor of Louisville, Charles Grainger.
Under the Mayor’s supervision is when the track started
offering spectators different experiences from exclusively horse racing. Car
races and steeplechases ensued and Grainger had a new clubhouse put up to
encourage social activities for people of all ages to enjoy from all over the
globe. The Kentucky State Fair was also offered for the first time in history
on the grounds of Churchill Downs.
Between the years of 2001 and 2005, the historic landmark
thoroughbred racetrack underwent some major renovations. In total, this
renovation took over three years to complete and cost over 120 million dollars.
The renovation included the refurbishing of the legendary twin spires, which
were built the same year of it’s opening in 1875 and the addition of almost 80
luxury suites for spectators to enjoy.
A more cosmetic renovation that took place was the
addition of a mural in the clubhouse that depicts 96 winners of the Kentucky
Derby from 1875 to 2004. In the summer of 2008, the same artist that painted
the original mural, Pierre Bellocq, added an additional mural which depicts
trainers and jockeys and updated the original, adding the winners from 2005 and
2006. Bellocq now updates the paintings yearly to add in winners, jockeys and
trainers from each and every victory of the Kentucky Derby.
In June of 2009, Churchill Downs offered spectators their
first chance ever to attend a nighttime race. A crowd of over twenty-seven
thousand people showed up for the event.
In 2010, Churchill Downs decided to try its hand in the
music industry, when it started piecing together the HulabaLOU music festival
which was to be inaugurated on the weekend of June twenty-third through the twenty-fifth.
The hopes of Churchill Down’s owners were that they could make the festival an
annual event, but only 70,000 people out of the expected 100,000 showed up and
investors ended up losing millions of dollars. Some people tried to blame the
poor attendance rates on the extreme summer heat, but others attributed the
failure to expensive tickets in an injured economy. The festival hosting was
In addition to finances plummeting after the failed
introduction of a new music festival to the Churchill Downs grounds, mother
nature decided to take a swing at it as well. The clubhouse, chapel and many of
the stables were hit by a tornado in June of 2011. Horses had to be moved from
damaged stables to ones that were still standing and repairs had to be made to
both the stables and the chapel.
Today, Churchill Downs is owned by the Churchill Downs
Corporation and prides itself on being the longest standing host of any single
sporting event in history. More than fifty-thousand people from all over the
world show up in Louisville for this annual event.
Casinos, shopping and hotels line the streets around the
track to accommodate spectators at this extremely popular sporting event, which
still holds many of the same traditions as it did while under original
ownership – including the length of the race.
While gambling may still be a part of Churchill Downs,
the Kentucky Derby is something the whole family can enjoy and there are plenty
of activities within the tracks and the general vicinity – including the
Kentucky Derby Museum that are appropriate for both children and adults.