Churchill Downs

Historical Markers #1885 and #2255 in Louisville note the location of Churchill Downs, the racetrack of the "Run for the Roses," the famous Kentucky Derby.

Churchill Downs began when track founder Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of the famous explorer William Clark, raised funds to build a track on land owned by his uncles, John and Henry Churchill, then three miles south of Louisville. Clark went on to serve as the president of the racetrack for the first twenty runnings of the Kentucky Derby.

The first race, in 1875, was won by Aristides, who was ridden by African American jockey Oliver Lewis. In 1895, with new president William F. Schulte in charge, the track featured a new 1,500 seat grandstands. The track’s trademark twin spires were constructed on the grandstands.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Churchill Downs was in serious financial trouble and the possibility of closing neared reality. In 1902, Colonel Matt J. Winn was hired to change the track’s situation. Winn quickly turned the venture around by forming a group of investors to shore up the track's shaky finances. In addition, Winn began marketing the venue's events, including the Kentucky Derby, as the scene of fashion and influence among the wealthy as well as the middle class. Under Winn’s direction the Kentucky Derby became the "greatest two minutes in sports."

Winn also used new technologies, including the radio and television, to broaden the reach and appeal of the Kentucky Derby to racing enthusiasts who could not attend the race. The race track's one mile circumference and long stretch have become iconic among generations of fans.

Although general interest in horse racing as a sporting event has declined, the iconic Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby continue to be synonymous with the identity of the state.