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The History of Churchill Downs

It wasn’t the first racetrack in Kentucky, but Churchill Downs is by far the most famous. The Louisville landmark has hosted the Kentucky Derby since its beginning more than 140 years ago.

“Churchill Downs came around in 1875, started by Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame,” says John Asher, Vice President of Racing Communications at Churchill Downs. “He’d been to Europe to see the great races there. He came back to the United States with the vision of launching a racetrack that would showcase the great horses that were already being bred in the state of Kentucky.”

Louisville was selected as the location for the track thanks to its established access by railroad. The property was owned by the Churchill family, who were relatives of Clark’s.

In its first season, the featured races were the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, modeled after the Epsom Derby and Epsom Oaks in England.

“We started there, with the first Kentucky Derby at what was then known as the Louisville Jockey Club,” says Asher. “April 17, 1875, first Derby was run. Things have worked out well and it’s the biggest event in American racing, one of the biggest sports events in the world. It all goes back to the imagination of Meriwether Lewis Clark, our founder, in 1875.”

The tradition of the running of the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May has become ingrained in the culture of the Commonwealth.

“The Kentucky Derby is an iconic event and has become so over the years,” says Asher. “It’s not just 160,000 people that attend here on Kentucky Derby Day. It’s what’s going on out in the state and how many people are touched by this. There’s a tremendous emotional investment by the people of this region in the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs. I think that puts both the event and our track in very special places.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #1918, which originally aired on May 4, 2014. Watch the full episode.