History of The Kentucky Derby

by JC Davis

The state of Kentucky has a history of horse racing dating to 1787. The first races were run in a park in Lexington. Due to complaints from safety minded citizens the first racecourse was established at a place known as The Commons. In 1783 races were run on Market St.

In 1805 racing moved to Shippingport Island, an abandoned island in the Ohio River. This course was known as Elm Tree Gardens. In 1809 a group of men including the statesman Henry Clay formed a group known as the Downs. It was renamed the Jockey Club the same year. In 1827 races were run on Main Street in Louisville.

In 1858 the course was moved to Woodlawn which was closed in 1870. The trophy known as the Woodlawn vase has been presented to the winner of the Preakness Stakes since 1917.

In 1872-1873 a young M. Lewis Clark visited England and France and studied racing practices on the continent and came up with the idea for an American Jockey Club based on the European models. The French Jockey Club remains in existence today and is arguably one of the most exclusive clubs its membership being limited to the nobility and the very wealthy.

Mr. Clark returned to America and established a racetrack which would eventually become known as Churchill Downs. The name comes from the surname of the Churchill family who originally owned the property where the present track is located. In 1874 Mr. Clark and a group of prominent Louisville met and formed the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park association with the articles if incorporation being filed on June 20. 1874. Originally Clark designed 3 major races, the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks and the Clark Handicap. These were patterned after three English races, the Epsom Derby, Epson Oaks, and the St. Leger Stakes.

The track formally opened on May 17. 1875 and featured four races including the first Kentucky Derby with a crowd of approximately 10.000 in attendance. The first winner of the Kentucky Derby was Aristides who had been trained and ridden by two African-Americans Ansel Williamson and Oliver Lewis respectively. Aristides was a three year old colt owned by H.P.McGrath.

Unfortunately despite the success of the first Derby the track was not a success financially. This led to the formation of the New Jockey Club in 1894 with Wm .Schulte as president and Clark retained as presiding judge of the track. In 1894-1895 a new grandstand was constructed with twin spires which have come to symbolize Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. The reported cost of building the grandstands was 100,000. Nine Derby’s were run before the track became referred to as Churchill Downs in the local Louisville newspaper.

The Kentucky Derby is limited to three year old thoroughbreds both fillies and colts. In 1896 the course was shortened from the original 1.5 miles to 1.25 miles, the reasoning being that the old course was too long for three year olds in the spring. In 1899 a real tragedy occurred, with the suicide by pistol of M Lewis Clark. This was the year that the 25th Derby was run.

During this period of time several other events were staged at Churchill Downs including the staged collision of two locomotives in 1902 at the first Kentucky State Fair before a crowd of 40,000-50,000 spectators. Auto races were also run in 1908, 1910, and 1912 .In 1902 A Louisville tailor and other investors took over the track and spend 20,000 on renovations including the addition of a clubhouse.

This was successful because in 1903 Churchill Downs showed a profit for the first time. Ownership of the track went through several changes in ownership and management, including a 1960 attempt by the city of Louisville to purchase the track, but was turned down by city alderman. This was finally settled in 1969 when a group of Churchill board members successfully thwarted a hostile takeover by National Industries and the price of their stock increased significantly. In 1997, In 1997 Churchill Downs Inc. formed the Churchill Downs Investment Corp. to oversee the company's industrial investments. The corporation also owns several racetracks in many states.

In 1984 major renovations were made to the aging facility headed by a former counsel and acting president of Churchill Downs. These included 2.5 million for core renovations, 3.2 million for the Matt Winn Turf Course, and 2.5 million for paddock construction, 5 million for clubhouse improvements, 3.7 million for Skye terrace improvement, and 1.2 million for barn area improvements. In 1984 Meeker was named permanent president of Churchill Downs at age 40. Since then Churchill Downs Inc. has continued renovations and aggressively pursued other racing interests including the acquisition and building of other tracks.

In 1996 the Kentucky Derby entered cyberspace launching a corporate site. The Kentucky Derby has kept up with technological advances over the years. We may now watch the Derby on television, web casts, pay per view, from anywhere on the globe but there is nothing equal to actually being there in person.

Jeffrey Davis is a lover of horse racing and a marketing executive at Triumph Marketing, you can find more of Jeff's horse racing articles at the Kentucky Derby Information site http://www.kentuckyderby131.com