The Hallowed Grounds of Churchill Downs by Lee Lane-Edgar
Thereâs nothing like it, its sprawling Kentucky blue grass freshly cut and trimmed. The expansive white rails splitting that Kentucky bluegrass and the red Kentucky dirt, itâs a breathtaking site to be seen. Its one of the most hallowed grounds in sports, deeply entrenched in tradition and history.
Kentucky is rich in horse racing 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 officially opened and began its tradition as “Home of the Kentucky Derby.”
It all began when a man, 26-year-old Col. M. Lewis Clark, devised the idea of a Louisville Jockey Club for conducting race meets. He got the idea when traveling through Europe in France and England in 1872-1873. Upon his return, Clark began to develop his idea of a racetrack which would in time serve as the showcase for Kentucky racing.
It was originally called the Louisville Jockey club and wouldnât take on the famed Churchill Downs name until later. Clark would raise $32,000 via 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. Clark designed his three major stake races for the inaugural race, 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 races are still being held today at Churchill Downs.
The track formally opened May 17, 1875 with four races scheduled. The winner of the first race was Bonaventure and the winner of the now famed Kentucky Derby, was a three-year-old chestnut colt, Aristides. Aristides was trained and ridden by two African-Americans, Ansel Williamson and Oliver Lewis, respectively. The track has seen its share of tough times through many ups and downs over the years, from the brink of bankruptcy to several additions and renovations. In fact, in the fall of 1894 to the spring of 1895, the grandstand renovation was completed that featured two spires constructed atop of the roof. These twin spires would eventually become one of the most recognizable symbols of Churchill Downs. The track was first referenced as âChurchill Downsâ in 1883 by a report in the Louisville Commercial and was officially incorporated as such in 1937.
It really goes without saying that the number of historic races at the Kentucky Derby is staggering. Unless you have been living under a rock or been in a coma for the last 200 years, you may have heard about some of the greatest racehorses to win the Kentucky Derby. The 1950âs Middlegorund and Hill Gail to the 1960âs Decidedly or Proud Clarion to the greatest of all time, Secretariat. No matter what generation you are from, even if you arenât a big horserace fan, you always remember the great horses of your generation that won the Kentucky Derby at the famed Churchill Downs.
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