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Churchill Downs, located on Central Avenue in south Louisville, Kentucky, United States, is a thoroughbred racetrack most famous for hosting the Kentucky Derby annually. It officially opened in 1875, and held its first Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks in the same year. Churchill Downs has also hosted the renowned Breeders' Cup on several occasions, most recently in 2011. Churchill Downs Inc. owns and operates the racetrack.

Churchill Downs
Location Louisville, Kentucky, United States
Owned by Churchill Downs Inc.
Date opened 1875

Screened on

NBC (Kentucky Derby)
Course type Flat
Notable races

Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Oaks

Woodford Reserve Turf Classic

Stephen Foster Handicap

Clark Handicap

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

History[]

The track is named for John and Henry Churchill, who leased 80 acres (320,000 meters squared) of land to their nephew, Colonel Meriweather Lewis Clark, Jr. (grandson of explorer William Clark). Clark was president of the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association, which was formed in 1874. 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. 

Churchill Downs filled a void in Louisville left by the closing of Oakland and Woodlawn, two earlier race courses. The then-rural location was located 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 in the 1890s, was running short of funds, and in 1893 sold the track to a syndicate led by William Applegate. The new ownership would soon institute many changes, such as shortening the length of the signature race to its current 1-1/4 mile (2 km), commissioning the famous twin spire grandstand in 1895, and adorning the winner of the Derby with a garland of roses, a tradition that also began in 1895.

Churchill Downs on Derby Day, 1902.

In early 1902, Applegate turned over 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. The business had been floundering until the time when Col. Matt Winn of Louisville put together a syndicate of businessmen to acquire the facility. Under Winn, Churchill Downs prospered and the Kentucky Derby then became the preeminent stakes race for three-year-old thoroughbred racehorses 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.

Thoroughbred racing at Churchill Downs.

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.

Churchill Downs has now 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. However, due to what was perceived as lower than expected ticket sales and complants from concert goers over seating and the brutal heat, it was decided that the festival would not return in 2011. Despite selling more than 78,000 tickets for the three-day event, it failed to turn a profit, losing over 5 million dollars for the now defunct Churchill Downs Entertainment group. Besides the heat and poor seating, many blamed the lineup of artists, calling them "washed up acts from the state fair circuit." While headliners Bon Jovi, Dave Matthews Band, and Kenny Chesney drew large crowds, other acts that filled slots during the day did not.

On Wednesday, June 22, 2011, an EF2 tornado hit the Louisville area, striking the stable and chapel at Churchill Downs, though only at EF1 intensity at the time. 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. The tornado did not cause any damage to the iconic twin spires or the clubhouse.

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