Louisville, Kentucky 40208
Churchill Downs, located on Central Avenue in south Louisville, Kentucky, is a thoroughbred racetrack most famous for hosting the Kentucky Derby annually. It officially opened in 1875, and held the first Kentucky Derby and the first Kentucky Oaks in the same year. Churchill Downs has also hosted the renowned Breeders' Cup on six occasions, most recently in 2006. Churchill Downs Incorporated owns and operates the racetrack.
In 2009, the Horseplayers Association of North America introduced a rating system for 65 Thoroughbred racetracks in North America. Churchill Downs was ranked #5 on this list.
The track is named for John and Henry Churchill, who leased 80 acres (320,000 m²) of land to their nephew, Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. (grandson of explorer William Clark). Clark was president of the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association, which formed in 1874. His father-in-law, Richard Ten Broeck, was an accomplished horse breeder and trainer, and introduced Clark to horse racing, attending the English Derby at Epsom Downs outside London.
Churchill Downs filled a void in Louisville left by the closing of Oakland and Woodlawn, two earlier race courses. The then-rural location was located along Louisville and Nashville Railroad tracks, allowing for easy transport of horses. Clark, who preferred longer races to the relatively short ones that had become popular by the 1890s, was running short of funds, and in 1893 sold the track to a syndicate led by William Applegate. The new ownership would soon institute many changes, such as shortening the length of the signature race to its modern 1 1/4 mile (2 km), commissioning the famous twin spire grandstand in 1895, and adorning the winner of the Derby with a garland of roses, a tradition that also began in 1895.
In early 1902, Applegate turned over operation of the track to Charles F. Grainger, then the mayor of Louisville, in an effort to move Churchill Downs away from being primarily known for gambling. A new clubhouse was built in order to promote social interaction, and new events such as steeplechases, automobile races and band concerts were held at the track. The State Fair was held on the grounds, featuring the odd spectacle of two locomotives being intentionally crashed head-on in the infield.
On June 5, 1907, African American jockey James Lee set a record that has never been beaten when he won the entire six-race card at Churchill Downs.
In 1908, parimutuel betting machines were introduced as gambling began to be less controversial again, and the wagering portion of the track's business became more profitable.
Churchill Downs was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
On September 29, 2006, Churchill Downs became the first horse track to host a Rolling Stones concert.
On Friday, June 19, 2009, Churchill Downs hosted its first-ever night race.
The twin spires atop the grandstands are the most recognizable architectural feature of Churchill Downs and are used as a symbol of the track and the Derby. They were designed by architect Joseph Dominic Baldez and built in 1895. Today, Churchill Downs covers 147 acres. The usual amount of people to seat at the derby is 50,000 people, though crowds can reach over 150,000 on Derby day. The dirt oval main track, on which the Derby is run, is one mile (1.6 km) in circumference and is 79 to 80 feet (24 m) wide, with a 120-foot (36.5-meter) wide section for the starting gate. A turf track, inside the main track, is 7/8 of a mile (1.4 km) in circumference and 80 feet (24 m) wide.
From 2001 to 2005, Churchill Downs underwent a three-and-a-half year, $121 million renovation. The clubhouse was replaced, 79 luxury suites were added, and the historic twin spires were refurbished. One of the additions in the clubhouse was a 36-foot (11-meter) mural by Pierre Bellocq depicting all 96 jockeys to win the Kentucky Derby from 1875 to 2004. In summer 2008 the same artist added another mural depicting all of the trainers and updating the Jockey's painting, adding Calvin Borel and Edgar Prado to it. The new design has been somewhat controversial since the new suites block full view of the spires from most angles. The tips of the spires are still the highest parts of the facility, albeit just barely now.
Racing at Churchill Downs occurs in two meets. The spring meet starts one week before the Derby and continues until early July. The Kentucky Derby is held the first Saturday in May and the Kentucky Oaks is run on Friday, the day before the Derby. A fall meet picks up in late October and closes Thanksgiving weekend in late November. When Ellis Park was supposedley going to close in 2008, there was speculation that the spring meet would have extended through the summer.
In addition to the track, clubhouse and stables, Churchill Downs also contains the Kentucky Derby Museum which focuses on the history of the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs. The museum also contains a number of exhibits exploring the training and racing of thoroughbred horses. It includes a 360-degree cinema that shows the short film "The Greatest Race," a documentary about the Kentucky Derby. The museum is normally open year-round but due to flash flooding in the first week of August, 2009, the museum is currently closed to visitors and tours. There are however other tours of the paddock area and track available to visitors of Churchill Downs Horse Race Track.