If for no other reason, people around the globe know Churchill Downs as the home of the Kentucky Derby. It is also known to those in the horse racing industry and its fans as a historic track opened in the late 1800s that now opens its doors for three meets per year.
The historic landmark with its twin spires is one of the most distinguished and frequently visited horse tracks in the world.
The track itself is historic, dating back 145 years and hosting the most famous horse race in the entire world — the Kentucky Derby. Its twin spires are legendary, poised above the grandstands and lit to shine each night.
The famous Kentucky Derby Museum is open year-round. From “The Greatest Race” exhibit to the others honoring iconic figures like Bill Shoemaker and D. Wayne Lukas, the museum has expanded since its opening in 1985. The most recent $6.5 million renovation added another 16,000 square feet to it.
What many people don’t know is that the property also occupies nearly 150 acres of land, with a span of barns that house more than 5,000 horses every year. The grandstand can accommodate more than 165,000 guests, and it boasts the world’s largest 4K video screen, which serves as the Big Board.
A day at Churchill Downs has numerous options, from a pony section and special paddock for kids to the Kentucky Derby Museum and statues commemorating the history of Churchill Downs around the property. Visitors can receive handicapping lessons during the 75 days of racing each year. And people can gain admission for as little as $5 or splurge for box seats or private facilities.
The latest modernization projects have added private luxury suites, integrated simulcast areas and permanent lights for night racing.
Churchill Downs was the first track to be nationally accredited for equine safety. It takes pride in its “Safety from Start to Finish” program that maintains high standards and mandates numerous safety measures for horses, jockeys, and the integrity of racing.
In 2019, Churchill Downs paid out approximately $40 million in purses.
The original track was 1.5 miles long, but new ownership of the facility in 1895 shortened the length of its signature Kentucky Derby race to 1.25 miles. In 1984, a massive five-year renovation project revamped the track, including installing the new Matt Winn Turf Course.
The primary dirt oval main track is now one mile in circumference (1.6 kilometers) and 79-80 feet wide (24.1-24.4 meters). The starting gate section is 120 feet wide (37 meters).
The inside turf track is 7/8 of a mile (1.4 kilometers) in length by 80 feet wide (24 meters).
Perhaps the most famous horse race in the world, the Kentucky Derby, is Churchill Downs’ signature race.
It is often called the “Run for the Roses” due to the blanket of more than 500 roses draped over the winning horse, and it is referred to as “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”
Its first running was in 1875, and the current race is for 3-year-old thoroughbreds for 1 ¼ mile. Colts and geldings generally carry 126 pounds, and fillies carry 121 pounds.
The first winner of the Kentucky Derby was Aristides in 1875, ridden by Oliver Lewis and trained by Hall of Famer Ansel Williamson. The time for that 1 ½-mile race was 2:37.75. The first one to become a Triple Crown winner was Regret in 1915, but the fastest race ever was won by Secretariat in 1:50.40 in 1973, who went on to win the Triple Crown that year.
The Kentucky Oaks is the second-most popular race run annually at Churchill Downs. It also first ran in 1875, founded by Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. It is now the third-most attended race in North America, after the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. It runs 3-year-old fillies for 1 1/8 mile with a weight of 121 pounds. The purse is $1.25 million, with $750K of that going to the winner. It typically runs on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby. Its Grade 1 status for thoroughbred fillies has prompted its nickname “Lilies for the Fillies.”
One of the other very popular races at Churchill Downs is the Stephen Foster Handicap, named for composer Stephen Foster, who wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” which plays often before races like the Kentucky Derby. The 1 1/8-mile race is reserved for thoroughbreds 3 years of age and older and offers a $500K purse. It first ran in 1982, garnered Grade III status in 1988, up to Grade II in 1995, and finally to a Grade I race in 2002. However, it was moved back down to Grade II in 2019.
The other key race at Churchill Downs each spring is the Turf Classic Stakes, once known as the Early Times Turf Classic Stakes and then the Old Forester Turf Classic Stakes and now the Longines Turf Classic Stakes. The nine-furlong turf race is for thoroughbreds 4 years of age and older with a $500K purse. It has been a Grade I race since it first ran in 1998.
The dates for the first of the key 2020 races are set with the Longines Kentucky Oaks on May 1 and Kentucky Derby on May 2.
|Grade I||Grade II||Grade III|
|Kentucky Derby||Turf Classic Stakes||Ack Ack Handicap|
|Kentucky Oaks||Alysheba Stakes||Aristedes Stakes|
|La Troienne Stakes||American Turf Stakes||Bashford Manor Stakes|
|Clark Handicap||Chilukki Stakes||Cardinal Handicap|
|Churchill Downs Stakes||Churchill Distaff Turf Mile Stakes||Debutante Stakes|
|Eight Belles Stakes||Dogwood Stakes|
|Falls City Handicap||Mint Julep Handicap|
|Firecracker Handicap||Iriquois Stakes|
|Golden Rod Stakes||Jefferson Cup Stakes|
|Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes||Kentucky Juvenile Stakes|
|Mrs. Revere Stakes||Locust Grove Handicap|
|Pocahontas Stakes||Louisville Handicap|
|Stephen Foster Handicap||Northern Dancer Stakes|
|Twin Spires Turf Sprint Stakes|
|River City Handicap|
|Commonwealth Turf Stakes|
|Pat Day Mile Stakes|
|Winning Colors Stakes|
The first horse racing course in the town of Lexington dates back to 1789, but Churchill Downs was founded in 1872 and officially opened in 1875. Right away, it became the “Home of the Kentucky Derby.”
Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark founded Churchill Downs in 1872 after visiting famous racetracks in England and France. His return to America prompted him to authorize the development of a Kentucky track that eventually became known as Churchill Downs in 1883. It was built on eight acres of land leased from his uncles with the last name Churchill. Clark sold memberships to the track to fund the construction of a clubhouse, grandstand and six initial stables.
The first official race day was May 17, 1875, and it featured the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and Clark Handicap. A horse named Bonaventure won the first race of the day, but Aristides won the derby in front of 10,000 spectators.
In 1894, Clark sold the track to a group of businessmen headed by William Applegate, a famous bookmaker, and William Schulte. Under their leadership, the grandstand under the twin spires was built in 1895, the rose blanket was draped over the winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1896, and the Derby was shortened to 1 ¼ miles in 1896.
The then-mayor of Louisville, Charles Grainger, took over operations of Churchill Downs in 1902 in an attempt to improve its reputation. Grainger and Col. Matt Winn ran the track, built a new clubhouse, introduced new types of races and opened the track for concerts and fairs.
In 1908, the first pari-mutuel betting machines were installed at Churchill Downs to increase profitability.
Churchill Downs was first incorporated under its name in 1937 under the holding company of the American Turf Association. Winn eventually took over as president in 1938 and chose to operate it as a nonprofit entity, but Bill Corum took the reins in 1949, leading to the dissolution of the American Turf Association and exchanging of shares.
|Belmont Park||Churchill Downs||Saratoga Racecourse||Monmouth Park||Arlington International Racecourse|
|Pimlico Race Course||Keeneland Race Course||Santa Anita Park||Oaklawn Racing||Fair Grounds Race Course|
Over the years, Churchill Downs underwent frequent improvements. New barns and seating were installed in the early 1950s, more seating and the museum in the early 1960s, and eventually a computerized pari-mutuel system in 1982. The new paddock and barns were constructed in 1984, as was the Matt Winn Turf Course.
Churchill Downs then began to purchase other tracks around the country, such as Ellis Park in Kentucky and Hollywood Park in California.
The latest renovations came in 2002 and 2003 under the leadership of President Steve Sexton. These included more than 60 luxury suites, a Turf Club expansion, more seating and a new grand entrance. And in 2009 Kevin Flanery became the 13th president of the track and ushered in the first night race.