The History of Churchill Downs

Horse racing in Kentucky is rich in history, dating back to 1789 when the first race course was laid out in Lexington. However, it was almost 100 years later, in 1875, that Churchill Downs officially opened and began its tradition as "Home of the Kentucky Derby." The Founding of Churchill Downs began in 1872, when Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark traveled to England and France in 1872. Clark attended the Epsom Derby in England, which sparked his ambition to create a spectacle horse racing event in America. Upon his return to the states, Clark began the development of the racetrack, with intentions to showcase the Kentucky breeding industry that eventually became known as "Churchill Downs."

The track was constructed on eighty acres of land that Clark leased from his uncles, John and Henry Churchill, approximately three miles south of downtown Louisville. To fund the initial construction, Clark raised money by selling membership subscriptions to the track. With 320 membership subscriptions sold for $100 each, Clark raised a total of $32,000. This profit was used to construct a clubhouse, grandstand, Porter’s Lodge, and six stables on site for the opening of the track. Throughout the years, the initial structures still stand, but the racetrack has continued to grow and modernize. Today, Churchill Downs spans 147 acres with its most significant structure being the Twin Spires, an architectural feature which sits atop the grandstand and has become the universally recognized symbol for Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby.

Churchill Downs had its first official race day, which formally opened the track on May 17, 1875. For the opening meet, Clark created three major stakes races- the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and Clark Handicap. These were modeled after three premier races in England- the Epsom Derby, Epsom Oaks and St. Leger Stakes. The winner of the first race was Bonaventure; however the winner of the day’s featured race, the Kentucky Derby, was a three-year-old chestnut colt, Aristides. Owned by H.P. McGrath, Aristides was trained by and ridden by two African-Americans, Ansel Williamson and Oliver Lewis. A crowd reaching 10,000 spectators witnessed the fifteen thoroughbreds run the first 1.5 mile long Kentucky Derby. Aristides’ victory launched a tradition that has been held continuously at Churchill Downs annually since their debut in 1875.

Today, Churchill Downs Racetrack is owned and operated by Churchill Downs Incorporated. Churchill Downs currently holds the record for the longest-running, continuous sporting event in the United States. In 1875, the track’s inaugural meet reached nearly 10,000 spectators, unknowingly initiating an annual ritual that is now universally recognized bringing in record-breaking crowds of more than 170,000. With many changes over the course of three centuries, the Kentucky Derby is known to be the most exciting two minutes in sports.

Clark devised the idea of a Louisville Jockey Club for conducting race meets, inspired by his trip to England and France.
The first public notice of establishment of the track was reported in the May edition of the Courier-Journal.
The inaugural meet formally opened the track on May 17, 1875, including three races- the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and Clark Handicap. Bonaventure won the first race at the track and Aristides won the first running of the Kentucky Derby.
Leonatus wins the Derby, and the name “Churchill Downs” is first used to landmark the racetrack that is the home of the Kentucky Derby.
The New Louisville Jockey Club was incorporated. William F. Schulte was appointed President and Clark was retained as Presiding Judge for the track.
Schulte constructed a new grandstand complemented by two twin spires atop the roof on the opposite side of the track for a reported cost of $100,000.
Financial problems plagued the racetrack; Charles Grainger took over as President, Charlie Price as Racing Secretary, and Matt J. Winn as Vice President.
Under this administration, the track finally showed its first profit, 28 years after its founding.
The owners of Churchill Downs, who were officials of the New Louisville Jockey Club, joined with nearby Douglas Park to form the Louisville Racing Association, whose purpose was to establish race dates and policies for racing in the City. This relationship led to the formation of the Kentucky Jockey Club in February 1919.
One of the first recorded flights in Kentucky takes off in the infield
The American Turf Association serves as the new holding company for the racetracks including- Churchill Downs, Douglas Park, Lexington, Latonia in Kentucky & Fairmount Park, Lincoln Fields, and Washington Park in Illinois.
The track was incorporated as Churchill Downs.
Matt Winn becomes President and creates a committee to operate the track as a nonprofit entity, donating $1.5 million to charity over a 10 year period.
Following the death of Matt Winn, William Veeneman was named Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of both Churchill Downs and the American Turf Association. At the end of the year, Bill Corum was named President of the track.
The once mighty American Turf Association came as stockholders voted to dissolve the association. Shareholders of the association exchanged their shares on a one for one basis for the Churchill Downs Incorporated stock.
Under the direction of Bill Corum, the racetrack continued to grow and modernize by adding new barns, seating, and sprinkler systems.
Wathen Knebelkamp was selected as the eighth President. Knebelkamp who initiated aggressive construction and renovations, including the installation of more seating and construction of the museum
The “Derby Protection Group” was formed to counter a stock takeover attempt by National Industries and Lynn Stone became Churchill Down’s ninth President.
Under Stone’s leadership, the Derby celebrated its 100th running making a new record of 163,628 on hand.
Stone computerized the pari-mutuel system and began development of a $7 million Kentucky Derby Museum.
Stone resigned and was replaced by President Thomas H. Meeker, the youngest President since Clark (age 40). Meeker immediately began a five-year, $25 million renovation project which included- Paddock construction, clubhouse and barn improvements, and construction of the Matt Winn Turf Course.
The Churchill Downs Management Company opened Hoosier Park at Anderson, Indiana’s first pari-mutuel track.
Churchill Downs Incorporated finalized the purchase of Ellis Park racetrack in Henderson, Kentucky
Churchill Downs Incorporated purchased Calder Race Course in Miami and Hollywood Park in Inglewood California. Alex Waldrop was named the 11th President of Churchill Downs.
Churchill Downs Incorporated completed a merger with Chicago’s Arlington International Racecourse (now Arlington Park), which involved an exchange of stock with Arlington owner Richard Duchossois.
Steve Sexton became President and began a two-step renovation process. Phase I provided over 60 luxury suites, and the following year, Phase II expanded the Turf Club, installed more seating, and created a new grand entrance.
Kevin Flanery was named the 13th President of Churchill Downs Racetrack and also serves as a senior Vice President for Churchill Downs Incorporated. Churchill Downs hosts its first-ever night race with an attendance over 27,000.

For more information on Churchill Downs History, get the PDF.

Sign up for more information about visiting Churchill Downs
Privacy Policy
Thank you to our sponsor