Kentucky Horseracing

The birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. Kentucky Civil War forts and battlefields. Appalachian festivals, art and coal field culture. African American heritage and Native American historic sites such as the Trail of Tears.

These characters, settings and events combine to form the history of the state of Kentucky. Some of them part of a forever-changed past; others carrying on timeworn traditions and helping to shape the future of the Bluegrass State.

When referring to Louisville, most people tend to think first of horses. Indeed, horse racing has a rich history in the state of Kentucky, even before the origin of Churchill Downs, the race track that holds the renowned Kentucky Derby race every May.

Historians believe that horse racing began in Lexington in 1787. At that point in time, there weren't any official race tracks in Lexington, so horses were raced in a park, The Commons. After enough people complained of the location of this sport, the men who organized the races, including Kentucky Statesman Henry Clay, formed an organization called Commonwealth's First Jockey Club (in 1809, this was renamed the Kentucky Jockey club). Soon after, a race course was constructed, making it the first race track in the state.

In Louisville, horse racing dates back to 1783. Because there were no race tracks, the races were held downtown, namely on Market Street (to those who know Louisville now, this is interesting to visualize because Market Street is an extremely busy street!). In 1805, the first course in Louisville was developed on Shipping Island (this is now an abandoned island). This course was called "Elm Tree Gardens."

In the late 1820s, another track was developed; however, at the time, horse racing was equally divided among public race tracks and private tracks located on farms throughout Louisville. A few other race courses were opened in the following years until the horse racing industry in Louisville began to decline. By 1873, it was so weak that many horse trainers threatened to take their business to other, more prominent horse racing cities.

Before doing so, a group of horse breeders approached the very wealthy Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and asked for his guidance and financial support. Although his family was known for their love of this sport, Clark knew nothing of the horse racing industry. In order to gain knowledge, he traveled to Europe to study the race tracks of England and France. Upon witnessing these tracks, Clark designed a series of races specifically for (what would later be called) Churchill Downs. Clark designed this series of races with a grand finale, the Kentucky Derby. This race would be a mile and a quarter long, and it would race three year old thoroughbreds.

Clark's maternal side of the family, the Churchill's, were prominent members of the Louisville community, and they owned a majority of land in Louisville. Part of their property, a few miles in southern downtown, was the chosen site for the new race track. The track was referred to "Churchill Downs" in 1883

Churchill Downs opened its doors on May 17, 1875. At the time, there was only a small wooden grandstand to hold its ten thousand spectators. Once it was bought over by horse breeder William Schulte in 1894, there was an immediate construction of a fifteen-hundred grandstand on the western side of the track. The grandstand was complemented with two spires on the rooftop, where they remain a symbol of Churchill Downs today.

The Kentucky Derby, as well as the Kentucky Oaks, which takes place on the eve of Derby, is the oldest continuous sport event and the only Thoroughbred race ran annually at the same site of its origin. In 1986, Churchill Downs was named a National Historic Landmark. Today, Churchill Downs' commitment to quality racing has made it America's most famous race track, and it brings many tourists into our city every May to see the fashionable hats, to hear "My Old Kentucky Home," and to see the gorgeous thoroughbreds run for the roses.

Kentucky Horseracing Tracks

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