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First turn of the Kentucky Derby race, 1995
First turn of the Kentucky Derby race, 1995. Photo courtesy of Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs, one of North America's premier racing centers, officially opened in 1875, beginning its tradition as "Home of the Kentucky Derby," America's oldest continuously held sporting event.

Horse racing in Louisville dates back to 1789 when races were held down Market Street. Several race tracks followed in less busy areas around the city. During a trip abroad from 1872 to 1873, 26-year-old Colonel M. Lewis Clark devised a plan to create the Louisville Jockey Club for conducting race meets, after meeting with prominent racing leaders in France and England. Upon his return, Clark developed a racetrack, which would become known as Churchill Downs that would showcase Kentucky's breeding industry. To fund construction of the project, he sold 320 membership subscriptions to the track for $100 each. Clark then leased eighty acres of land, about three miles south of Louisville's downtown, from his uncles, John and Henry Churchill, for the track, a clubhouse, grandstand, and porter's lodge.

For the inaugural race meet on May 17, 1875, Clark designed three major stakes races: the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, and Clark Handicap. These events have been held continuously at Churchill since their debut. The first reference of this track as "Churchill Downs" is documented in an 1883 newspaper article. A new grandstand was completed in 1895 on the opposite side of the track for $100,000. The grandstand's two spires constructed atop its roof would become the symbol of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. The track was incorporated as Churchill Downs in 1937.

Documentation comprises two videotapes of post race interviews (1998 and 1999); 23 photographs; an audio cassette of race calls; a 125th Kentucky Derby Program (1999); a 264-page Kentucky Derby Media Guide; and a promotional collage.

Originally submitted by: Anne M. Northup, Representative (3rd District).



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The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

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