Among mainstream horse racing fans there is no doubt that the Kentucky Derby is the best known annual stakes race, and its venue – Churchill Downs – is very likely the most famous racetrack in the sport. From its inauspicious beginnings, Churchill Downs has become a corporate powerhouse in the horse racing business and helped spawn the huge thoroughbred industry in the state of Kentucky. In addition to the Kentucky Derby, the venue hosts two full horse racing meets and the Breeders’ Cup as well as simulcast wagering and other events.
The history of the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs is largely interwoven and dates back to 1875 when Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark founded the Louisville Jockey Club with the goal of creating a world class horse racing facility in his hometown. The land for the track was donated by Clark’s relatives, John and Henry Churchill, and the horse racing facility soon became known as ‘Churchill Downs’ although it wouldn’t be officially incorporated under that name until the 1930’s.
Although the first Kentucky Derby met with considerable success both in terms of popularity and revenue, both Churchill Downs and the Derby struggled to gain traction during the early part of its existence. In 1902, Col. Matt Winn of Louisville organized a group of businessmen to buy the facility and under their stewardship the Kentucky Derby became the biggest horse racing event in the United States. During the same time, Churchill Downs became one of the top thoroughbred racing tracks in North America.
The facility itself is located on Central Avenue in the south part of Louisville, Kentucky. Perhaps its best known physical characteristic are the twin spires atop the grandstand – these were designed by architect Joseph Dominic Baldez in 1895 and have become iconic since then. They are frequently used in marketing and branding by the track and the online wagering arm of Churchill Downs Inc. is known as Twinspires.
The spring racing meet at Churchill Downs traditionally begins one week before the Kentucky Derby and continues through July. The fall meet begins in October and continues through November. In addition, the track has hosted several Breeders’ Cup events including the 2010 race and will host the event again in 2011. Despite a reputation for steadfastly maintaining tradition, the track has begun to implement a number of innovative changes to broaden its appeal and increase revenue. In 2009, lights were added to the facility and the first night race was held on June 12, 2009. More recently, the venue has hosted several concert festivals and Churchill Downs management has maintained that more events of this type will be scheduled for the future.