- Road to the Kentucky Derby
- Racing & Wagering
About Churchill Downs
Kentucky and Louisville's early racing history...
Horse racing in Kentucky is rich in history, dating back to 1789 when the first race course was laid out in Lexington. However, it was almost 100 years later in 1875 that Churchill Downs Racetrack officially opened and began its tradition as "Home of the Kentucky Derby."
In 1787, The Commons, a park-like block near Lexington's Race Street was used by horsemen for racing. By 1789, complaints by "safety minded" citizens led to the formal development of a race meet at The Commons. The men who organized this race meet, including Kentucky Statesman Henry Clay, also formed the Commonwealth's first Jockey Club. The organization later was named the Kentucky Jockey Club in 1809.
Racing in Louisville dates back to 1783 when local sources reported that races were held on Market Street in the downtown area. To alleviate the problems associated with racing on the busy city thoroughfare, a course was developed on Shippingport Island in 1805. Racing was conducted on the island in the Ohio River at what was called the Elm Tree Gardens.
By 1827, a new track, known as the Hope Distillery Course, was laid out on what is presently Main and 16th Streets. Racing was also held on a number of private tracks located on farms throughout the local area. One of the more prominent of these was Peter Funk's Beargrass Track which was located in an area now bordered by Hurstbourne Lane and Taylorsville Road.
The Oakland Race Course opened in the fall of 1833 and brought racing back to a formal site with the racetrack, complete with clubhouse, located at what is now Seventh and Magnolia Streets in what is now the "Old Louisville” neighborhood. This was followed in 1858 by the opening of the Woodlawn Course on the Louisville and Lexington railroad lines just outside of today's St. Matthews neighborhood, east of downtown Louisville. The site closed in 1870, but the Woodlawn Vase, the track's premier trophy, has been used in the presentation to the winner of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course since 1917 and is one of the most valuable trophies in the sporting world.
Harness racing was also a significant part of Louisville's early racing history with a number of tracks in existence. One of the most prominent was Greeneland, a race course for trotters that was built just east of Churchill Downs in 1868.
The demise of these tracks did not sway the enthusiasm of 26-year-old Col. M. Lewis Clark, who while traveling in England and France in 1872 and1873, devised the idea of a Louisville Jockey Club for conducting race meets. While abroad, Clark toured and visited with a number of prominent racing leaders, including England's Admiral Rous and France's Vicompte Darn, vice president of the French Jockey Club.
Upon his return from Europe, Clark began development of his racetrack which would serve to showcase the Kentucky breeding industry. The track would eventually become known as "Churchill Downs." The first reference of the name Churchill Downs came in an 1883 Kentucky Derby article reported by the former Louisville Commercial newspaper.
"The crowd in the grandstand sent out a volume of voice, and the crowd in the field took it up and carried it from boundary to boundary of Churchill Downs."
The track was incorporated as Churchill Downs in 1937.
The first public notice of the establishment of the track was reported in the May 27, 1874, edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal. The notice was met with some objections because another track had already been proposed by the Falls City Racing Association for a site near the river just east of downtown Louisville. Clark and a group of prominent Louisville gentlemen met at the Galt House on June 18, 1874, to prepare articles of incorporation with the actual filing for the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association taking place on June 20.
To fund the construction of the track, Clark raised $32,000 by selling 320 membership subscriptions to the track at $100 each. Eighty acres of land, approximately three miles south of downtown were leased from Clark's uncles, John and Henry Churchill. A clubhouse, grandstand, porter's lodge and six stables were all eventually constructed on the site for the opening of the track.
For his inaugural race meet, Clark designed his three major stakes races, the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and Clark Handicap, after the three premier races in England, the Epsom Derby, Epsom Oaks and St. Leger Stakes, respectively. These events have each been held continuously at Churchill Downs since their debut in 1875. However, in 1953, the Clark Handicap was moved from the Spring to the Fall Meet where it is still contested today as part of the track’s closing weekend festivities. The Falls City was also offered during the inaugural meet and after four interruptions, the race continues to be held.
The track formally opened May 17, 1875, with four races scheduled. The winner of the first race was Bonaventure, however the winner of the opening days’ featured race, the Kentucky Derby, was a 3-year-old chestnut colt named Aristides. Owned by H.P. McGrath, Aristides was trained by and ridden by two African-Americans, Ansel Williamson and Oliver Lewis, respectively. The Kentucky Derby has been held each year since 1875 and remains the longest, continuously held sporting event in the United States.
Financial crisis and development...
Despite the success of the first Kentucky Derby, the track was not financially successful in its infancy and on Nov. 24, 1894, the New Louisville Jockey Club was incorporated. William F. Schulte was appointed president and Clark was retained as presiding judge for the track.
Under Schulte, a new grandstand was constructed from the fall of 1894 through the spring of 1895 on the opposite side of the track for a reported cost of $100,000. The grandstand was complemented by two spires constructed atop the roof. The Twin Spires, a simple architectural element, would become the visual symbols of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby.
Financial problems continued to plague the racetrack, and finally on Oct. 1, 1902, a group headed by Louisville Mayor Charles Grainger (1901-1905), Charlie Price and Matt J. Winn agreed to take over the operation. The takeover was done by amending the track's articles of incorporation with no transfer in the form of a deed. Grainger was named president, Price racing secretary and Winn vice president.
Under this administration, the track finally showed its first profit in 1903, 28 years after its founding. As the Kentucky Derby grew in popularity so did the racetrack. In 1907, the owners of Churchill Downs, who were officials of the New Louisville Jockey Club, joined with nearby Douglas Park to form the Louisville Racing Association. The purpose of the new Association was to establish race dates and policies for racing in the City of Louisville. This relationship led to the formation of the Kentucky Jockey Club in February 1919 as a holding company for Churchill Downs and three other tracks in the State: Latonia in the north, Lexington in the Bluegrass region, and Douglas Park and Churchill Downs in Louisville.
Under the powerful Kentucky Jockey Club, the track's domain grew for the next 10 years (1919-1929). During this time the company acquired possession of the newly built Fairmount Park in East St. Louis, Ill., in 1925 and also constructed Lincoln Fields in Crete, Ill., in 1926.
American Turf Association/Churchill Downs reign...
With five tracks under its control, the Kentucky Jockey Club began the process of dissolving the organization in December 1927 for the purpose of reorganizing as a separate holding corporation under the laws of the State of Delaware. According to a Louisville Times article dated Dec. 29, 1927 . . .”incorporated under the laws of Delaware, provides for a capitalization of $6,000,000, an increase of $2,600,000 over the present capitalization."
The process was finalized on Jan. 16, 1928, with the American Turf Association serving as the new holding company for Churchill Downs, Douglas Park, Lexington, and Latonia in Kentucky and Fairmount Park, Lincoln Fields and Washington Park in Illinois. Washington Park was purchased by the Association during this period.
Fairmount Park was sold in 1929, and in 1935, the Association began to dramatically trim its holdings with the sale of Washington Park, the closing and eventual sale of Lexington, and the end of racing at Douglas Park. The reduction left the association with three tracks: Churchill Downs, Latonia and Lincoln Fields. Due to economic reasons Churchill Downs and Latonia formed a separate operating corporation titled, Churchill Downs-Latonia Incorporated on January 28, 1937. Lincoln Fields was operated by Lincoln Fields Jockey Club Inc., but all three tracks were still owned by the parent corporation, American Turf Association.
On Jan. 13, 1942, officials of Churchill Downs-Latonia Inc. sold the Latonia track and abandoned racing at the site. Later that year on April 24, the Churchill Downs-Latonia Incorporated's name was officially changed to Churchill Downs Incorporated. The American Turf Association continued its affiliation with Churchill Downs, but sold its last out-of-state holding, Lincoln Fields, in March 1947.
The corporate direction of Churchill Downs became a key topic in November 1948. Backed by track President Matt Winn (1938-49) and other board members, a committee was created to study the feasibility of the creation of a foundation to purchase Churchill Downs and operate the track as a nonprofit entity with its earnings donated to the University of Louisville School of Medicine.
The proposal was founded upon the experience of the Churchill Downs Foundation, a charitable organization led by J. Graham Brown. Each fall, several days of racing were held for charitable purposes. During a 10-year period 1940-50s, the foundation donated approximately $1.5 million to charity.
The proposal was considered up until the death of Winn on Oct. 6, 1949. Following the naming of William Veeneman as chairman and chief executive officer of both Churchill Downs and the American Turf Association on Oct. 10, and the selection of Bill Corum as track president, the proposal was permanently shelved Dec. 30, 1949.
The end of the once mighty American Turf Association came April 3, 1950, as stockholders voted to dissolve the association. Shareholders of the association exchanged their shares on a one for one basis for Churchill Downs Incorporated stock.
Enter the 1950s and ‘60s...
Under the direction of Corum, a former New York Times and New York Journal-American sports columnist, Churchill Downs and the famed Kentucky Derby continued to grow and modernize:
- The first national telecast of the Kentucky Derby aired May 3, 1952;
- The first barns constructed of concrete firewalls were built in 1952;
- More seating boxes were added to the second floor of the grandstand and clubhouse in 1953 with 400 additional third-floor boxes in the clubhouse;
- Film patrol was installed in 1954 to provide replays to the racing officials; and
- In 1955 a $300,000 automatic sprinkler system was installed in the entire grandstand and clubhouse.
Following Corum's death in December 1958, Wathen Knebelkamp was selected as his successor on March 3, 1959. Under his direction an aggressive building and renovation program was initiated. During Knebelkamp's tenure, improvements rose from $128,000 in 1959 to $1.02 million in 1966. Renovations ranged from the installation of 1,000 seats on the north end of the grandstand (and construction of a museum in 1960) to the addition of the fourth and fifth floors of the Skye Terrace (a.k.a. "Millionaires Row") in 1965-66.
The success of the track continued under Knebelkamp, but Churchill Downs’ eighth president was faced with speculation that the track was a prime target for a hostile takeover. In January 1960, a proposal was made to have the City of Louisville issue revenue bonds to purchase Churchill Downs. However, the proposal, which was made in an effort to secure the Kentucky Derby and prevent outside ownership of the track, was turned down by the board of aldermen. In December 1963, the Kentucky Racing Commission set forth a proposal to establish a new organization to purchase Churchill Downs and Lexington's Keeneland Race Course and to modernize both tracks through revenue bonds.
Finally, in March 1969, as a counter to a stock takeover attempt by National Industries, a group of Churchill Downs Incorporated board members, headed by John Galbreath, Warner L. Jones Jr. and Arthur "Bull" Hancock formed what was called the "Derby Protection Group." They successfully outbid National Industries for control of the Company, moving the stock from $22 a share to $35.
Growth and development...
Lynn Stone became Churchill Downs' ninth president in December 1969, replacing the retiring Knebelkamp. Stone had first come to Churchill in 1961 as resident manager, and was appointed vice president and general manager in 1966.
Under Stone's leadership, Churchill Downs celebrated a number of milestones: the 100th Kentucky Derby in 1974, which drew a record crowd of 163,628; the addition of the Skye Terrace's sixth floor in 1977 at a cost of $1.8 million; the computerization of the pari-mutuel system in 1982; and the development of a $7 million Kentucky Derby Museum. But most important, Stone headed the efforts which stopped two separate takeover attempts in 1984, the first by Brownell Combs II of Spendthrift Farm and the second by Irwin L. Jacobs. In August of that year, Stone resigned following huge financial losses resulting from two years of failed summer racing.
Stone was replaced by acting president Thomas H. Meeker, a former general counsel to Churchill Downs while with the law firm of Wyatt, Tarrant and Combs. On Sept. 28, 1984, Meeker was named permanently to the position.
At age 40, Meeker was the youngest Churchill Downs president since Meriwether Lewis Clark organized the track at age 29. Meeker immediately began a five-year, $25 million renovation renaissance, headed by the following projects:
- $2.5 million in core renovations (1984);
- $3.2 million addition of the Matt Winn Turf Course (1985);
- $2.5 million for paddock construction (1986);
- $5 million in clubhouse improvements (1987);
- $3.7 million in Skye Terrace updates (1988); and
- $1.2 million in barn area improvements.
These renovations helped lead to a resurgence of the track and were instrumental in attracting the Breeders' Cup to Churchill Downs. Churchill Downs has hosted the event a record six times, will host the Championships for a seventh time in November 2010, and holds five of the top six attendance records.
In 1994, the Churchill Downs Management Company opened Hoosier Park at Anderson, Indiana's first pari-mutuel track. This would prove to be the first in a long line of properties purchased by Churchill Downs Incorporated, as the Company staged an unparalleled period of growth beginning in 1998. On April 21, 1998, Churchill Downs Incorporated finalized the purchase of Ellis Park racetrack in Henderson, Ky., and later purchased Calder Race Course in Miami on April 26, 1999. On Sept. 10 of that same year, Churchill Downs Incorporated acquired Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif. Another significant purchase came on Sept. 8, 2000, as Churchill Downs Incorporated merged with Chicago's Arlington International Racecourse (now Arlington Park), which involved an exchange of stock with Arlington owner Richard L. Duchossois.
Churchill Downs in the 21st century...
On Sept. 14, 1999, Alex Waldrop was named the 11th president of Churchill Downs, allowing Meeker to devote his total attention to Churchill Downs Incorporated as president and chief executive officer. Waldrop was succeeded by Churchill Downs’ 12th president, Steve Sexton, on Dec. 10, 2002.
Churchill Downs Incorporated's expansion continued in September 2004 as Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans and its affiliated OTB locations were purchased out of bankruptcy for $47 million. In 2005, Hollywood Park was sold to Bay Meadows Land Company for $257.5 million, and Ellis Park was sold to businessman Ron Geary in September of 2006. On March 30, 2007, CDI completed the sale of Hoosier Park to Centaur Inc. Currently, Churchill Downs Incorporated owns racetracks and simulcast-wagering operations in Kentucky, Illinois, Florida and Louisiana and has an interest in various racing service companies. With the acquisition of Fair Grounds Race Course and its Louisiana operations, Churchill Downs added alternative gaming to its entertainment options. On Sept. 21 2007, Fair Grounds became the first CDI racetrack to offer slot-machine gaming and now does business as Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots. January 2010 brought the opening of a slot-machine gaming facility at Calder Casino & Race Course and the Company continues to actively pursue alternative gaming for its tracks in Kentucky and Illinois.
Churchill Downs Incorporated is also one of the industry leaders in account-wagering, having launched it TwinSpires.com online betting platform in the spring of 2007. In the fall of 2009, the Company announced its planned acquisition of Youbet.com. A closing date for that transaction is pending.
Churchill Downs Incorporated also maintains a 50-percent interest in HorseRacingTV® (HRTV) a cable and satellite television channel offering live racing coverage from tracks around the country, including the Churchill Downs-family of racing venues.
Churchill Downs racetrack remains the flagship operation of Churchill Downs Incorporated, and in the early 21st century underwent what is considered the most ambitious and comprehensive renovations in the history of the track. In July 2002, Churchill Downs began Phase I of a $121 million renovation. The Phase I project provided 64 luxury suites and spacious meeting areas built atop the track's existing grandstand, with huge balconies providing stunning views of the Twin Spires. Phase I was completed for the opening of the 2003 Fall Meet. Phase II began in July 2003 with the demolition of an 800-foot expanse of the clubhouse, leveled to make way for new construction. The $95 million Phase II project took nearly two years to complete and included an expanded Turf Club, 15 luxury suites, new group sales areas, premium outdoor third-floor boxes, indoor box seats, new Millionaires Row dining areas, a new media center and television production compound, new dining and entertainment areas, a new grand entrance at Gate 17 leading to the track's integrated simulcast wagering areas, a new central kitchen and satellite kitchen facilities. The construction provided an additional 404,000 square feet and increased the permanent seating capacity to approximately 52,000.
Robert L. Evans joined Churchill Downs Incorporated as its current president and CEO in August 2006. A business strategist, entrepreneur and Thoroughbred breeder by trade, Evans is exploring growth opportunities for the Company and the horse racing industry through technology initiatives such as alternative gaming and account wagering, and international distribution channels while maintaining the Company's long-standing commitment to quality racing.
Under Evans leadership, Churchill Downs embarked on an innovative Kentucky Derby branding campaign in 2008, adding a VIP Red Carpet entrance for celebrity guests that was covered by national and local media and provided new content for expanded pre-race coverage of Derby Day events by NBC and Access Hollywood. In 2009, the Company extended its branding initiative to the Kentucky Oaks event by focusing on women and issues of importance to them, including sisterhood, charity, fashion and celebrity. The track partnered with Susan G. Komen for the Cure® to raise money and awareness for breast cancer research and prevention and donated more than $100,000 to the national charity based on the number of attendees at Oaks 135. Churchill Downs also staged its first Kentucky Oaks “Pink Out” under the Twin Spires on Friday, May 1, 2009, and will continue that special promotion during the 136th renewal, encouraging all patrons to incorporate pink into their Oaks attire to show support for breast cancer survivors everywhere. New additions to the Oaks program in 2009 that will also continue in 2010 include the Survivors’ Parade, where 100+ breast cancer survivors walk before the Oaks crowd to standing ovations, the First Lady of Fashion contest, and live coverage of all of the “Kentucky Derby: Ladies First” activities on NBC-Universal cable partner Bravo.
In June 2009, Churchill Downs made history by conducting night racing for the first time ever at the century-old track. The “Downs After Dark” entertainment experiment with rented stadium lights continued over three Friday nights in June and July and produced phenomenal crowds of almost 90,000 over the three-week span. Mixing traditional horse racing, with innovative wagering promotions, live, nightclub-like musical performances in the paddock and themed food and drink specials, Downs After Dark proved to be a regional fan favorite and set the horse racing industry on its ear. In the fall of 2009, the Churchill Downs Incorporated board of directors approved the installation of permanent lights at the home of the Kentucky Derby, and the world’s most legendary racetrack is preparing to host six Downs After Dark events in the spring and fall of 2010.
Matt Winn – Kentucky Derby Visionary
In the storied history of Churchill Downs, there has never been a leader that was both as innovative and colorful as the legendary Colonel Matt J. Winn. Although his arrival at Churchill Downs happened more than a century ago, his impact serves as an indelible signature on Churchill Downs and the famed Kentucky Derby.
In his final year as Churchill Downs president, the 1949 Diamond Jubilee Kentucky Derby souvenir glass featured a picture of Matt Winn with the comment "He has seen them all!" The glass was a fitting tribute to Winn, the Kentucky Derby's tireless promoter, who made the race his lifelong passion.
Born in Louisville, June 30, 1861, Winn attended the first running of the Derby in 1875. As a teenager, he watched the event from an infield seat on his father's grocery wagon. Winn's excitement and love of the Derby grew deeper as he bought his first pari-mutuel ticket and won in 1886. Winn was a skilled handicapper and he never forgot the experience of being a fan and winning a race.
By the early 1890s Churchill Downs was in financial trouble. A full house on Derby Day did not support the track all year long. In 1894 it was sold to a group of investors who spent $100,000 to build a new grandstand, topped by Twin Spires, on the north side of the track.
In spite of the improvements, by 1902 Churchill Downs was on its last legs. Derby fields were small due to the depressed economy and a boycott by Eastern racing interests.
Winn, meanwhile, was a successful middle-aged businessman and a partner in a men's custom clothing store where he developed a national clientele as a sales representative. His motto, and his lifelong advice to others on how to succeed, he could put in three words: "Always be polite."
After the 1902 Spring Meet, Charlie Price, Winn's friend and Churchill Downs secretary, begged him to buy the operation. Without new management, the track risked closure. Winn called friends, among them hotelman Louis Seelbach, and Louisville Mayor Charles Grainger, and formed a new corporation to save the track and the Kentucky Derby.
By early 1903, they had sold 200 "Jockey Club" memberships at $100 each. A new $20,000 clubhouse was built with that money for the Spring Meet, the first profitable meet in Churchill Downs' history.
A year later, Winn, a devoted father of a large family, took the biggest risk of his life. He sold his business and was named vice president and general manager of Churchill Downs. Due to his sense of ethics, from that day on he never placed another bet. Racing became his life.
In a decade-long struggle, he faced and outwitted Churchill Downs' biggest rival, nearby Douglas Park, in the "turf wars." When Louisville barred bookmakers from operating within the City limits in 1908, Winn resurrected the long-abandoned pari-mutuel machines for the track's wagering patrons.
During the pre-war years when "reform" movements shut down tracks nationwide, Winn opened tracks in Mexico to keep racing alive. He made Churchill Downs a community landmark with concerts and fairs in the infield, where he also grew potatoes during World War I.
In 1919, Winn formed the Kentucky Jockey Club as a holding company for Churchill Downs and three other Kentucky tracks: Latonia, the Kentucky Association in Lexington and Douglas Park, also in Louisville. Over the next 10 years, the operation grew to include Fairmount Park in East St. Louis, Ill., and Lincoln Fields in Crete, Ill.
The Kentucky Jockey Club reorganized with the creation of the American Turf Association in 1928. The Association served as a holding company for the various tracks and also included Washington Park in Illinois that was purchased that year. Although the American Turf Association was later disbanded, Winn is credited with the creation of the most powerful racing organization of the period.
Winn created several of the Kentucky Derby traditions that have become synonymous with the event. The playing of "My Old Kentucky Home," the intricate garland of roses presented the winner and even the Kentucky Derby mint julep glasses were developed by Winn. For the Kentucky Derby's 50th anniversary in 1924, he commissioned a unique gold cup to be presented to the winner. An identical has been presented to each winner ever since.
Under his guidance the Derby continued, uninterrupted by the Great Depression and World War II, during which time he set up Camp Winn in the infield. In 1945, the Derby was postponed until June 9, but it was run. No war was going to stop Winn and his beloved race! In 1949, at 88, Winn arranged for the first telecast of the Derby, bringing America’s great horse race into every living room with a TV set.
When it came to the power of the media to spread the Derby gospel, Winn was a fantastic promoter and understood the need to expose members of the media to the “Run for the Roses.” He personally invited journalists from major media markets and outlets to cover the Derby at Churchill Downs. The strong world-wide media interest the Kentucky Derby still enjoys today is rooted in Winn’s early efforts to recruit and entertain journalists and media moguls at the event. The Churchill Downs communications team annually credentials approximately 2,000 journalists and still receives more requests for media credentials that they can accommodate.
Winn also understood the power of celebrity and recruited famous faces from the worlds of film, television, music, publishing and politics to witness the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” and add to the event’s overall luster and star power. To learn more about the Derby’s celebrity attendees, click here.
Winn's death, Oct. 6, 1949, capped a lifetime of devotion to his family, his home and his beloved race, the Kentucky Derby.