First Race Course

Historical Marker #6 in Lexington notes the location of the first straight quarter-mile horse racing course in Kentucky, which was established years before statehood.

Kentucky was the first state settled west of the Appalachian Mountains. Many of the earliest settlers to the new land came from Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, all of which considered horse racing to be a popular sport. Naturally, those pioneers brought not only their love of horse racing to Kentucky, but eventually their prized racing stock as well.

Once land was cleared and station settlements established, these locations frequently turned into villages and towns, the streets of which were often used for horse races. Early horse racing in Kentucky was usually confined to straight quarter-mile dash races. It would not be until later that mile-long oval track racing was established. These unsanctioned—and often spur-of-the-moment —quarter-mile runs could be dangerous affairs to citizens. The Lexington town trustees in 1793, "feeling the dangers and inconveniences which are occasioned by the practice, but too common, of racing through the streets," recommended holding a town meeting "to consider of the means which ought to be adopted for applying a remedy to the growing evil." The trustees decided to restrict horse racing to designated areas.

Even before statehood in 1792, noted horse racing stock was commented on in Lexington's newspaper, the "Kentucke Gazette." Horse races were reported on and advertised, and bloodline horses were offered for sale and stud. In the 1790s, when more thoroughbred horses arrived in Kentucky, a move was made to mile-long oval track races, often consisting of three or four-mile heats. These races evolved over the years into the track racing we know today at such storied Kentucky locations as Churchill Downs and Keeneland.