The History Of Churchill Downs Horse Racing With Timeline

Kentucky is almost synonymous with horse racing. People who are familiar with the history of the city and horse racing know that both are inseparable. In 1789, the first horse race course was laid in Lexington, in Kentucky. In 1875, however, Churchill Downs opened officially and commemorated the county as “Home of the Kentucky Derby.” Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, upon his return to the United States from his voyage to England, started a breeding industry known as Churchill Downs.

Clark leased a vast land from his uncles and developed it for his Kentucky breeding company in the south of downtown Louisville. Churchill began on an eighty-acre land, and today has been modernized and developed across the span of 147 acres. The initial Porter’s Lodge and six stables on the site still stands. However, in recent times, significant things have happened. The track accommodated the first race on in 1875—May 17th. Three stakes races were developed by Clark, which are the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, and Clark Handicap. 

May 4, 2019; Louisville, KY, USA; Luis Saez aboard Mximum Security (7) reacts after crossing the finish line during the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

It might be surprising to know that Churchill Downs took most of its original idea from England. Following his trip to England, where Clark attended the Epsom Derby and was inspired to start his horse racing event. And the three main events followed England’s Epsom Derby, Epsom Oaks, and St. Leger Stakes. Since 1878, the Churchill events have taken place annually, and 2020 would be the 146th year of running the show. And for that, Churchill Downs has the record for the longest-running, continuous sporting events in the country. This historic horse racing event began with 10,000 spectators watching the 1875 1.5 miles long Kentucky Derby. Today, the crowd breaks records, reporting about 200,000 spectators to be at the event. However, following the 2020 pandemic and shutdown of many event centers, Kentucky Derby took to having the show without spectators around the event place. And for the first time, there were about 1.7 million virtual spectators for the virtual events, and Kentucky Derby was postponed until September 5th.

Here is the historical timeline of significant activities in the evolution and modernization of Churchill Downs.

  • 1872: Clark conceived the idea of having a racing club. 
  • 1874: A notice for the establishment of a horse track was reported to the public in the Courier-Journal. 
  • 1875: 1875 marks the official launch and opening of the track with three races, all still alive.
  • 1883: Churchill Downs, for the first time, became the official landmark for the racetrack of the Kentucky Derby.
  • 1894: The New Louisville Jockey Club, the cover name for the event, became incorporated, and a new president was appointed. However, Clark maintained the decision-making rights over the track. 
  • 1902: The corporation, with its events, almost ran down from the financial crisis. Following that, new leadership appointments were made. This decision was a favorable one, as the organization made its first profit in its twenty-eight years of establishment in 1903.
  • 1907: Louisville Racing Association was formed.
  • 1937: The track became incorporated as Churchill Downs. 
  • 1998: Churchill Downs processed and concluded the purchase of Ellis Park racetrack in Henderson. 
  • 1999: Churchill Downs Inc. processed and finalized the purchase of the Calder Race Course in Miami and Hollywood Park, California.
  • 2009: First ever night race was held. The attendance hovered around 27,000 spectators.
Marcelo Villa

About Marcelo Villa

Marcelo is an associate editor at The Sports Daily, and has covered the San Diego Chargers for Bleacher Report. He also writes for Sportsdirect Inc.