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The Turbulent History of Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs on Downs After Dark "The Big Easy" June 15th, 2019.

The words “Kentucky” and “horses” are practically synonymous. The state boasts 450 farms in the Bluegrass Region alone. It is only fitting that one of the most well-known racetracks in the world is located here.

It all started when Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark was just a boy. He spent much of his time as an impressionable child with his uncles John and Henry Churchill. Through them, Clark developed a love of Thoroughbred horse racing.

In 1872, a 26-year old Clark traveled to Europe and France. It was there that he watched the Epsom Derby and spent time with the French Jockey Club. He was inspired and decided that the United States needed a horse racing spectacle as great as that.

Clark returned home and leased 80 acres of land from his uncles John and Henry Churchill. In order to cover the costs of construction, Clark sold 320 subscriptions to the racetrack for $100 each. With these profits he built a clubhouse, grandstand, Porter’s lodge, and six stables.

Churchill Downs grandstand in Louisville, Kentucky.

The track’s gates opened for the very first time on May 17, 1875. The first Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, and Clark Handicap were held on that day. One of horse racing’s greatest tracks had officially been born.

But, running the track wasn’t always easy. The track was not making a profit and Clark was struggling to maintain good relationships with the industry’s prominent people. It is reported that Clark threatened wealthy breeder T.G. Moore with a gun - Moore retaliated by shooting Clark through a door. Charges weren’t brought against Moore, but he was banned from the track.

In 1886, breeder Ben Ali Haggin and many of his friends boycotted the track. It didn’t cause the track to close down completely, but the implications were definitely felt. The number of horses running in the Kentucky Derby dwindled down to just three horses by 1892.

To make matters even worse, the stock market crashed in 1893, leaving Clark with little money. In order to make ends meet, Clark sold the Louisville Jockey Club. The new Louisville Jockey Club was incorporated and William Schulte was named president. Clark was retained as Presiding Judge. A new grandstand and the famous twinspires were constructed on the opposite side of the track in 1895, signaling a new change. They remain as a symbol of Churchill Downs today.

Half Shot in the paddock of Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

By the time John Churchill died in 1897, Clark had been reduced to traveling around working as a track steward. During his time traveling, he pulled a gun on a Chicago bartender after the bartender objected to Clark calling Chicagoans “thieves and liars”. The incident made headlines and Clark’s name was tarnished even further.

A man once so full of visions of a great racetrack running America’s best races was decaying. He was broke, he was lost, and he was suffering. On April 22, 1899, Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark closed the door of a Memphis hotel room and quieted his brain with a pistol.

Four years after Clark’s death, Churchill Downs finally turned a profit. It had taken 28 years.

In 1937, the track was officially incorporated as “Churchill Downs”. Over the years, many changes have taken place at Churchill Downs.

The 50s and 60s saw the track modernize with the addition of new barns, seating, and sprinkler systems. The 80s also brought a lot of changes to Churchill Downs. In 1982 President Lynn Stone computerized the pari-mutuel system Clark had introduced and began constructing a $7 million Kentucky Derby Museum. Two years later, President Thomas Meeker began a five-year $25 million renovation project that improved the clubhouse and barns and constructed the paddock and Matt Winn Turf Course.

Churchill Downs paddock, Thoroughbred racetrack.

The early 2000s saw the construction of 60 luxury suites and an expansion of the Turf Club.

Today Churchill Downs stretches over 147 acres. In 2015, the Kentucky Derby saw 170,513 pack into the grandstands and infield. Churchill Downs Inc. now owns and operates racetracks and wagering platforms across the country.

The first 28 years of Churchill Downs were tough. Colonel Meriwheter Lewis Clark struggled to keep his name clean and to make the track turn a profit. Today, however, Churchill Downs is a thriving business. Every Triple Crown Champion and countless other horse racing legends have etched their name in history there. It is truly a hallowed place.


Author - Kaeli Bartholomew: I run Champions of the Track as a way to spread the love of horse racing through writing, photography, and videography. The best way to increase the popularity and respect for this sport is by sharing stories and memories! Thank you for joining me on my mission to improve and grow the sport of horse racing.

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1 Comment

The names Clark and Churchill are well known in out sport, but I am sure many people don't know who these fine gentlemen were. Thanks to you, a great history lesson is learned!

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