Churchill Downs

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Churchill Downs
Churchill Downs Logo
Location Louisville, Kentucky, United States
Coordinates 38°12′11″N85°46′12″W / 38.20306°N 85.77000°W / 38.20306; -85.77000 Coordinates: 38°12′11″N85°46′12″W / 38.20306°N 85.77000°W / 38.20306; -85.77000
Owned by Churchill Downs Incorporated
Date opened1875
Screened on NBC (Kentucky Derby)
Course typeFlat
Notable races Kentucky Derby
Kentucky Oaks
Woodford Reserve Turf Classic
Stephen Foster Handicap
Clark Handicap
Official website
aerial view of Churchill Downs Churchill Downs - Louisville Kentucky.jpg
aerial view of Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs, located on Central Avenue in south Louisville, Kentucky, United States, is a Thoroughbred racetrack most famous for annually hosting the Kentucky Derby. It officially opened in 1875 and was named for Samuel Churchill, whose family was prominent in Kentucky for many years. [1] The first Kentucky Derby and the first Kentucky Oaks were held in the same year. Churchill Downs has also hosted the renowned Breeders' Cup on nine occasions, most recently on November 2 and 3, 2018. [2] Churchill Downs Incorporated owns and operates the racetrack. With the infield open for the Kentucky Derby, the capacity of Churchill Downs is roughly 170,000. [3]


In 2009, the Horseplayers Association of North America introduced a rating system for 65  Thoroughbred racetracks in North America. Churchill Downs was ranked number 5 on this list.

In 2014, prior to the start of their spring meet, Churchill Downs announced an increase in parimutuel takeout rates. As a result of the takeout increase, Churchill Downs was ranked number 22 in the 2014 Horseplayers Association of North America Track Ratings. [4]


Thoroughbred racing at Churchill Downs Horse race, Churchill Downs 2008-04-18.jpg
Thoroughbred racing at Churchill Downs

The track is named for John and Henry Churchill, who leased 80 acres (32 ha) 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 1875. 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.

Composite image of Churchill Downs on Derby Day, 1902 Churchill Downs 1901.jpg
Composite image of Churchill Downs on Derby Day, 1902

Churchill Downs filled a void in Louisville left by the closing of Oakland and Woodlawn, two earlier race courses. The then-rural location was 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 1894 sold the track to a syndicate led by William E. Applegate. [5] The new ownership would soon institute many changes, such as commissioning the famous twin spire grandstand in 1895, shortening the length of the signature race to its modern 1 14 miles (2.0 km) in 1896, and adorning the winner of the Derby with a garland of roses, a tradition that also began in 1896. [6]

the stands of Churchill Downs in 1951; Gulf Oil executive and noted horse-racing enthusiast Willard F. Jones is seated second to left, in back row Stands of Churchill Downs 1951.jpg
the stands of Churchill Downs in 1951; Gulf Oil executive and noted horse-racing enthusiast Willard F. Jones is seated second to left, in back row

In early 1902, Applegate, who had made his fortune as a bookmaker, turned over the day-to-day 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. Among the new people Applegate brought on board to help him run the rack was Col. Matt Winn of Louisville. Churchill Downs prospered and the Kentucky Derby then became the preeminent stakes race for three-year-old thoroughbred horses in North America.

During that early period, 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.

Churchill Downs--with the University of Louisville Marching Band in the foreground--during the 2006 Kentucky Derby. University of Louisville marching band, Churchill Downs Twin Spires.jpg
Churchill Downs—with the University of Louisville Marching Band in the foreground—during the 2006 Kentucky Derby.

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 Friday, June 19, 2009, Churchill Downs hosted its first-ever night race with an attendance of over 27,000.

Churchill Downs ventured into the music business, organizing the inaugural HullabaLOU Music Festival, held on the weekend of July 23–25, 2010. The track had planned to make this an annual event to compete with other summer music festivals. HullabaLOU attracted 78,000 people but that fell short of the more than 100,000 expected by the company. The company attributed this to the brutal heat, but others cited high ticket prices in a poor economy. The entertainment division lost more than $5 million int its first year and was discontinued. [7]

On Wednesday, June 22, 2011, an EF2 tornado hit the Louisville area, striking the stables and chapel at Churchill Downs, at EF1 intensity. [8] Several stables were badly damaged, as was the chapel. Over 200 horses had to be evacuated from the damaged stables and be relocated to other stables that were not damaged by the tornado. The tornado did not cause any damage to the twin spires or the clubhouse. [9]

Thurby is a portmanteau for Thursday plus Derby, and this name for the Thursday racing in Derby week has been recognized by Churchill Downs since 2014. [10]

Graded events

The following Graded events were held at Churchill Downs in 2019.

Grade I

Grade II

Grade III

Chief executive officers

From 1875 through 2019 Churchill Downs has had twelve CEO's. [11]


Churchill Downs front entrance gate Churchill downs.jpg
Churchill Downs front entrance gate
Churchill Downs, spring meet 2014 Churchill Downs, spring meet 2014.jpg
Churchill Downs, spring meet 2014

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 (59 ha). The usual number of people seated 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 79–80 feet (24.1–24.4 m) wide, with a 120-foot-wide (37 m) section for the starting gate. A turf track, inside the main track, is 78 mile (1.4 km) in circumference and 80-foot (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 m) 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. These updates are done yearly to accommodate new winning trainers and jockeys. The new design has been somewhat controversial since the new suites block full view of the spires from most angles. [12]

Churchill Downs has hosted the Breeders' Cup eight times during the fall meet 2006BCJuvenileStreetSenseHiddenOnRail.jpg
Churchill Downs has hosted the Breeders' Cup eight times during the fall meet

Racing at Churchill Downs occurs in three meets though for the majority of its existence there were only two meets per year. 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 the Friday before the Derby. A fall meet picks up in late October and closes Thanksgiving weekend in late November. A third meet in September was added in 2013.

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.

In October 2013, Churchill Downs began installing a new, ultra high-definition video board built by Panasonic, which became operational in time for the 2014 Kentucky Derby. Called "The Big Board", it measures 171 feet (52 m) wide and 90 feet (27 m) high, with the bottom edge 80 feet (24 m) off the ground, and weighs 1,200,000 pounds (540 t). It was constructed along the outside of the backstretch of the dirt course facing the grandstand and infield. At the time, it was the largest ultra high-definition video board ever constructed. At the same time, 750 speakers were installed around the track. [13]

TV personalities

Track announcers

See also


  1. "W. Christie Churchill Sinks into Last Sleep" (120). Lexington, Kentucky: Lexington Herald. April 30, 1913. p. 1. [Mr. Christie Churchill] was the last surviving son of Samuel Churchill, whose family was prominent in Louisville and Kentucky for many years, and from whom Churchill Downs received its name.
  2. Churchill Downs
  3. "Second-Highest Derby Attendance, Handle". Retrieved June 22, 2016.
  4. "HANA 2014 Track Ratings". Horseplayers Association of North America. Retrieved May 22, 2014.
  5. "A New Deal". The Courier-Journal. August 7, 1894.
  6. Thomas, Samual (1995). Churchill Downs, A Documentary History of America's Most Legendary Race Track. Louisville, Kentucky: Kentucky Derby Museum. pp. 94–101. ISBN   0-9617103-2-2.
  7. "Churchill scraps HullabaLOU music fest, dissolves entertainment group". kentucky. Retrieved June 22, 2016.
  8. "June 22, 2011 Storm Damage Survey". NWS Louisville. Retrieved June 26, 2011.
  9. Lovan, Dylan. "Tornado strikes Kentucky Derby's historic home | Horse racing | - Houston Chronicle". Archived from the original on June 24, 2011. Retrieved February 20, 2013.
  10. Grace Schneider (May 2, 2016). "Oaks, Derby too crowded, expensive? Try #Thurby". Courier Journal. Retrieved September 15, 2016. In the last three years, Churchill Downs has made give Thursday a shot...[as a] less expensive day to pair with the marquee racing dates [Oaks and Derby].
  11. "Churchill Downs Inc. Names New Chief Executive". The Courier-Journal. August 28, 2014. Retrieved February 15, 2020.
  12. "Derby Has Become A Carnival Of The Bizarre". May 2, 2006. Archived from the original on May 8, 2009. Retrieved July 13, 2009.
  13. "How the world's largest 4K video screen infused new flair and tradition into the Kentucky Derby - TechRepublic". TechRepublic. Retrieved June 22, 2016.

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