|Horse Race Track|
|Owned by||Churchill Downs Inc.|
|Kentucky Derby (G1)|
|Kentucky Oaks (G1)|
|Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (G1)|
|Clark Handicap (G2)|
The track is named for John and Henry Churchill, who leased 80 acres (320,000 m²) 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 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 by 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 modern 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.
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. 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.
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.
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. Seating capacity is 51,000, though crowds at the Derby can reach over 165,000 because of standing-room only admission to the paddock and infield. The dirt oval main track, on which the Derby is run, is one mile (1.6 km) in circumference and is 79 to 80 feet (24 m) wide, with a 120-foot (36.5-meter) wide section for the starting gate. A turf track, inside the main track, is 7/8 of a mile (1.4 km) in circumference and 80 feet (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-meter) mural by Pierre Bellocq depicting all 96 jockeys to win the Kentucky Derby from 1875 to 2004. The new design has been somewhat controversial since the new suites block full view of the spires from most angles. The tips of the spires are still the highest parts of the facility, albeit just barely now.
Racing at Churchill Downs occurs in two meets. 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 Friday, the day before the Derby. A fall meet picks up in late October and closes Thanksgiving weekend in late November.
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 open year-round.