Horse racing in Kentucky is rich in 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."
In 1787, The Commons, a park-like block near Lexington's Race Street was used by horsemen for racing. By 1789, complaints by "safety minded" citizens led to the formal development of a race meet at The Commons. The men who organized this race meet, including Kentucky Statesman Henry Clay, also formed the Commonwealth's first Jockey Club. The organization later was named the Kentucky Jockey Club in 1809.
Racing in Louisville dates back to 1783 when local sources reported that races were held on Market Street in the downtown area. To alleviate the problems associated with racing on the busy city thoroughfare, a course was developed at the now abandoned Shippingport Island in 1805. Racing was conducted on the island in the Ohio River at what was called the Elm Tree Gardens.
By 1827, a new track, known as the Hope Distillery Course, was laid out on what is presently Main and 16th Streets. Racing was also held on a number of private tracks located on farms throughout the local area. One of the more prominent of these was Peter Funk's Beargrass Track which was located in an area now bordered by Hurstbourne Lane and Taylorsville Road.
The Oakland Race Course was opened in the fall of 1833 and brought racing back to a formal site with the track, complete with clubhouse, located at what is now Seventh and Magnolia Streets in "Old Louisville". This was followed in 1858 by the opening of the Woodlawn Course on the Louisville and Lexington railroad lines just outside of today's St. Matthews, east of Louisville. The site closed in 1870, but the Woodlawn Vase, the track's premier trophy, has been used in the presentation to the winner of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico since 1917.
Harness racing was also a significant part of Louisville's early racing history with a number of tracks in existence. One of the most prominent was Greeneland, a racecourse for trotters was built just east of Churchill Downs in 1868.
Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., who built Churchill Downs in Louisville, wanted his track to have a race that would rival England's Epsom Derby. After visiting England to study both its tracks and its races, he established the Kentucky Derby, which was first run on May 17, 1875. However, the Derby was just another regional race until 1902, when Colonel Matt J. Winn took over the track. Although he had seen every Kentucky Derby since the beginning, Winn knew little about horse racing or running tracks. But he was a very good promoter. After raising money to save Churchill Downs from bankruptcy, Winn began making frequent trips to New York, then the center of American racing, to persuade owners to enter their horses in the Kentucky Derby. His persistence paid off. By 1920, the Derby had become the best-known race in North America and it was attracting the top three-year-olds from all over the country.
The first race in the Triple Crown, the Derby is run on the first Saturday in May. A whole week of festivities is built around the race which, like the Indianapolis 500, has become as much a happening as a sporting event. It attracts crowds of well over 100,000 spectators and is watched on television by millions more, many of whom are otherwise not interested in thoroughbred racing.