Churchill Downs

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Churchill Downs
Churchill Downs Logo
Location Louisville, Kentucky, United States
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]

Louisville, Kentucky City in Kentucky

Louisville is the largest city in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the 29th most-populous city in the United States. It is one of two cities in Kentucky designated as first-class, the other being Lexington, the state's second-largest city. Louisville is the historical seat and, since 2003, the nominal seat of Jefferson County, located in the northern region of the state, on the border with Indiana.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the most populous city is New York City. Forty-eight states and the capital's federal district are contiguous in North America between Canada and Mexico. The State of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine official time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.

Kentucky Derby American stakes race for Thoroughbreds, part of the Triple Crown

The Kentucky Derby is a horse race that is held annually in Louisville, Kentucky, United States, on the first Saturday in May, capping the two-week-long Kentucky Derby Festival. The race is a Grade I stakes race for three-year-old Thoroughbreds at a distance of one and a quarter miles (2.0 km) at Churchill Downs. Colts and geldings carry 126 pounds and fillies 121 pounds.


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.

Thoroughbred Horse breed developed for racing

The Thoroughbred is a horse breed best known for its use in horse racing. Although the word thoroughbred is sometimes used to refer to any breed of purebred horse, it technically refers only to the Thoroughbred breed. Thoroughbreds are considered "hot-blooded" horses that are known for their agility, speed, and spirit.

North America Continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere

North America is a continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered by some to be a northern subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, and to the southeast by South America and the Caribbean Sea.

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.

Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. was the founder of the Louisville Jockey Club and the builder of Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is run.

Horse breeding human-directed process of selective horse breeding

Horse breeding is reproduction in horses, and particularly the human-directed process of selective breeding of animals, particularly purebred horses of a given breed. Planned matings can be used to produce specifically desired characteristics in domesticated horses. Furthermore, modern breeding management and technologies can increase the rate of conception, a healthy pregnancy, and successful foaling.

Horse trainer person training horses for racing, riding, show or work

A horse trainer is a person who tends to horses and teaches them different disciplines. Some of the responsibilities trainers have are caring for the animals’ physical needs, as well as teaching them submissive behaviors and/or coaching them for events, which may include contests and other riding purposes. The level of education and the yearly salary they can earn for this profession may differ depending on where the person is employed.

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]

Louisville and Nashville Railroad defunct American Class I railway

The Louisville and Nashville Railroad, commonly called the L&N, was a Class I railroad that operated freight and passenger services in the southeast United States.

William E. Applegate

William E. Applegate was an American turfman, involved in the horse racing industry for over fifty years. He was known as a bookmaker, breeder, racer and track owner. At one time, Applegate was owner of Churchill Downs, Latonia and one of the builders of Oakley Racetrack in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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.

Charles F. Grainger American mayor

Charles F. Grainger was Mayor of Louisville, Kentucky from 1901 to 1905. He became president of Grainger & Company, his family's iron foundry.

Matt Winn American horse racing executive

Colonel Martin J. "Matt" Winn was a prominent personality in American thoroughbred horse racing history and president of Churchill Downs racetrack, home to the Kentucky Derby race that he made famous. In 2017, he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame as a Pillar of the Turf.

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, though only at EF1 intensity at the time. [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]


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. [11]

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. [12]

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. "Derby Has Become A Carnival Of The Bizarre". May 2, 2006. Archived from the original on May 8, 2009. Retrieved July 13, 2009.
  12. "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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Coordinates: 38°12′10.6″N85°46′12.1″W / 38.202944°N 85.770028°W / 38.202944; -85.770028