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Churchill Downs is the most storied racetrack in the United States, if not the world. As the only ever site of the Kentucky Derby, America’s most iconic race, it has endured as a symbol of both horse racing and the rich breeding history in the state of Kentucky.
From the twin spires, which still stand tall above the original grandstand, to the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” each year as the Derby horses post parade in front of a frenzied crowd, no other track can match the history, tradition, and grandeur of Churchill Downs.
Not only has Churchill Downs been the home of the Kentucky Derby since 1875, but it also plays host to numerous other important races, including the female counterpart to the Derby, the Kentucky Oaks. In the fall of 2018, it hosted the Breeders’ Cup, American racing’s end of year championships, for the ninth time.
Located approximately 3 miles south of downtown, Louisville, Kentucky, Churchill Downs will forever be best known as the home of the Kentucky Derby.
As home to the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs is the focal point of not only bringing the best 3-year-old horses in the country to Louisville, but also hundreds of thousands of fans to the city to celebrate horse racing, spring, and all things Kentucky.
The venue itself is one of the largest racetracks in the United States, with a capacity of better than 170,000 when the infield is open, as it is on Derby and Oaks day. The iconic twin spires still rise proudly above the original grandstand, which is now dwarfed by the new additions to the main building.
No race day in America can rival the Kentucky Derby in attendance. In fact, the second-largest crowd to watch horse races in most years is the Kentucky Oaks, held each year on the day before the Kentucky Derby.
Besides the Derby and the Oaks, which is the focal point of the first meet of the year, Churchill Downs also hosts live Thoroughbred horse racing during two other race meets in September and later in the Fall. Both of those meets run important stakes races as well. When it hosts the Breeders Cup, it is generally held in early November as part of Churchill Downs’ final meet of the year.
After attending the Epsom Derby in England, Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark embarked on his vision to create a big event race and track in the United States. A few years later, Churchill Downs was opened for racing.
Named after a prominent Kentucky family, Churchill Downs officially opened in 1875, and the first Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, as well as the Clark Handicap, were the three major stakes during its first meeting.
The three races were patterned after the important races which had impressed Clark years earlier. In essence, the new races in Louisville were to become American racing’s version of the Epsom Derby, Epsom Oaks and St. Leger Stakes.
Aristides won the very first Kentucky Derby on opening day, and the rest is history. All three races are still run today, and are important on the national racing landscape, but of course, it is the Kentucky Derby which is the biggest of all.
It has continued to grow, along with the facility itself, and has become one of the iconic sporting events in the world. A Kentucky Derby Museum was added to the grounds in 1985 to celebrate the rich history of the “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports”.
As part of Americana for nearly a century and a half, and located in a southern state, you better believe the Kentucky Derby would own a personality all its own. Traditions abound, and they all go a long way in making the Derby what it is today. Countless celebrities and patrons arrive in Louisville early for the festivities and parties that all lead up to the big day.
Wearing fancy hats at the Derby is a big part of the scene. Men can often be seen with hats on the first Saturday in May, but it has become the ladies in the crowd who bring out their most spectacular headwear of the entire year on Derby Day.
The planning and wearing of their big and bold Derby hats is an event in and of itself. Not to be outdone, men in the crowd also join the ladies in taking great pride in dressing up, often in bold outfits for the racing spectacular.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the Kentucky Derby without a little drinking and gambling. Cashing a ticket on the Derby is always an extra thrill, but sipping on a Mint Julep has become a rite of passage for anyone of drinking age.
With bourbon as the featured ingredient, the Mint Julep is Kentucky through and through and a mainstay at Churchill Downs. And don’t forget to save the glass, which lists every Derby winner since Aristides in 1875.
If you are looking to take the party to the next level, the infield of Churchill Downs on Derby day may be the place for you. Not open to the public except on Derby week, it becomes party central for the entire state on the first Saturday in May.
The only time you may hear “My Old Kentucky Home” all year is as the Derby horses make it onto the track, just moments before entering the starting gate. Still, everyone in the crowd knows the words and sings along. The song has been known to bring a tear to the eye of those in attendance and acts as a starting point to bringing the crowd to a fever pitch for the start of the race.
Finally, there is something very special about that garland of roses that is draped over the one-horse lucky enough to win the Kentucky Derby each year. Painstakingly constructed, and really a work of art, it is what every owner dreams of. They don’t call it the Run for the Roses for nothing.
Not to be outdone, the Kentucky Oaks, run the day before the Derby has a wonderful tradition of its own. The Survivors Parade is a celebration of those women who have survived their fight against cancer.
Survivors parade in pink and in solidarity before the running of America’s most prestigious race for 3-year-old fillies.
The Kentucky Derby is the most prestigious horse race in America, if not the world, but it also is the first leg of the most-watched series in racing. Followed by the Preakness Stakes, two weeks later at Pimlico, and the Belmont Stakes, three weeks after that at Belmont Park, the three legs of the series comprise the Triple Crown.
Winning the Kentucky Derby instantly etches your name into the history books, but completing the Triple Crown sweep ensures immortality.
The 13 horses to sweep the series beginning with the Kentucky Derby are:
Over the years, most of the greatest horses in the history of American racing have run at Churchill Downs.
Of the 13 horses to sweep the Triple Crown, none is more famous than Secretariat. The Horse of the Year in each of his two seasons on the racetrack, “Big Red”, as he was known, not only became the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown back in 1973, but to this day he also holds the stakes record in all three legs.
Other greats to have swept the Triple Crown include: Citation, who won 19 of his 20 starts in his amazing season of 1948; Seattle Slew, who became the first-ever horse to win the Triple Crown while still undefeated; Affirmed, who defeated his great rival Alydar in each of the three legs of 1978; American Pharoah, who became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years when he swept the series in 2015; and Justify who ended the “Jinx of Apollo”, becoming the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby, after not having raced as a 2-year-old, in well over a century.
Perhaps the most famous of all Kentucky Oaks winners came in recent history when Rachel Alexandra catapulted her undefeated Horse of the Year season of 2009, by winning the Oaks by more than 20 lengths.
Churchill Downs has also been the site of some remarkable editions of the Breeders’ Cup including the only defeat of Zenyatta in her Hall of Fame career. The great mare was edged out by Blame in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic, while in search of a third victory in the championships, in what was her final career start.
Undefeated in 13-lifetime starts, Personal Ensign won only a single Breeders’ Cup race, but her victory at Churchill Downs over a Kentucky Derby-winning filly, Winning Colors, in the 1988 Distaff will go down as one of the most memorable races in Breeders’ Cup history.
As will the stunning runaway victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile of 1991 by the French youngster, Arazi, while making his American debut at Churchill Downs.
On the human side, Pat Day is the all-time winning jockey at Churchill Downs with 2,482 career victories at the Louisville track. A winner of nine Triple Crown races in total, the Hall of Fame rider only won the Kentucky Derby once, aboard Lil E. Tee in 1992. Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack hold the record for most Derby winners ridden, each having won five.
Day’s training counterpart is Dale Romans who has won more than 700 career races at Churchill Downs and counting. The Louisville native has come close but has yet to win his first Kentucky Derby.
The legendary Ben A. Jones holds the all-time record, having trained six winners of the Run for the Roses.
Taken to the races at a very young age, Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Professionally, his work has been published on several leading industry sites. Brian served as the Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, where he still writes a regular column and hosts the popular weekly webcast HorseCenter.
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