Known as the home of the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks, Churchill Downs Racetrack conducts Thoroughbred horse racing in Louisville, Kentucky during three race meets in the Spring, September, and the Fall. The racetrack occupies 147 acres, featuring a one-mile dirt, oval racetrack and a seven furlong turf race course. The backside barns located behind the racetrack house more than 5,000 horses each year. Thoroughbred racing, the Kentucky Derby, and the Kentucky Oaks have run continuously at Churchill Downs Racetrack since 1875. In addition, Churchill Downs Racetrack has hosted the Breeders’ Cup World Championship eight times.
The track is named for John and Henry Churchill, who leased 80 acres 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.
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. The new ownership would soon institute many changes, such as shortening the length of the signature race to its modern 1 1⁄4 miles in 1896, and adorning the winner of the Derby with a garland of roses, a tradition that also began in 1896. Along commissioning the Twin Spires that sit atop the grandstands remain the most recognizable architectural feature of Churchill Downs and serve as a symbol of the racetrack. The spires were designed by architect Joseph Dominic Baldez and were built in 1895 – they shine across the world’s most legendary racetrack each night.
Over the course of three centuries, the track has completed several massive renovation projects to modernize its venerable grandstand and clubhouse and to accommodate its more than 165,000 guests on Kentucky Derby Day. Modernization projects have included the construction of private luxury suites and integrated simulcast areas, the installation of permanent lights to operate night-time race programs, and building The Big Board – the world’s largest 4k video screen.
Tour of the track are included in admission to the Kentucky Derby Museum.