Since its inaugural race in 1875, Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, has evolved from its initial 80 acres of largely undeveloped land in Louisville to the elaborate, 147-acre complex that it is today.
One of the most influential members in the founding of the track was Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark. In case you were wondering why that name sounded familiar, it is because Clark’s grandfather was William Clark — the man who explored the West in 1804 with Meriwether Lewis. Clark was inspired after seeing England’s Epsom Derby and wanted to start a similar race in the United States. John and Henry Churchill, Clark’s uncles, leased the land where Churchill Downs is situated today to Clark. Eventually, Clark raised enough capital from selling future membership passes to build the track and stables on the land and had the first race in 1875.
Despite the first series of races drawing over 10,000 spectators in 1875, Churchill Downs would not make a profit until 1903 due to early financial issues and high initial construction costs that included the grandstand and its iconic twin spires. Another milestone came one year later, when the rose was used as the official flower. From there, the nickname “The Run for the Roses” was born.
The popularity of Churchill Downs continued to “take flight” when the infield was used as a take-off strip for one of the first flights in Kentucky’s history in 1910.
The track was referred to as Churchill Downs for the first time in 1883. The track is named after the men who leased Clark the land for the track: John and Henry Churchill. As for the second part of the name, the word “downs” comes from the cleared grass areas in the UK that originally hosted horse races in the days before modern dirt or grass tracks were built. Downs has been used to describe horse racing venues ever since.
Today, Churchill Downs Inc (CHDN) is a publicly traded company that trades for more than $200 a share — a feat that would make the leadership group that helped to incorporate Churchill Downs in 1937 proud. In addition, the Kentucky Derby has the record of being the longest continuous sporting event in the United States, which makes it older than other staples such as the World Series, Masters, and even the first modern Olympics.
And for the last 147 years, Churchill Downs has been bringing us mint juleps, Derby hats, “My Old Kentucky Home” and all of the pomp and circumstance that helped make the Kentucky Derby the most exciting two minutes in sports. .
Photo Credit: Google Creative Common Licenses, Churchill Downs Instagram