Everyone knows that Louisville’s Churchill Downs is home to the Kentucky Derby, the most exciting horse race in the world. But even before the famous twin spires looked out over the city, Louisville was a haven for horse racing enthusiasts of all types.
Horses on Market
George Rogers Clark founded Louisville in 1778. Within 5 years, horse races were being held on Market Street. Even today, this remains a busy thoroughfare that cuts through the center of the city. A more permanent race course was established in 1805 at Shippingport Island, when city officials couldn’t successful stop the impromptu races downtown.
But it wasn’t until 1832 that Louisville got a complete Race Course…and it wasn’t Churchill Downs. This early track was built on a 5-acre plot right near the heart of the downtown area, at the corners of what is now 7th and Magnolia. It had a full clubhouse that was furnished, and a private pavilion where race watchers could gather.
When a businessman offered a $14,000 purse for a race held at the then-failing track, crowds flocked to the course to see it. Around 10,000 people gathered to watch, and Louisville’s reputation for horse racing was born. The horses in it and the race itself became famous.
Finances foiled the Oakland House in the late 1840s, and it was closed in the 1850s. Despite this, the course paved the way for Churchill Downs, which was built in a different part of the city in 1875.
The Kentucky Derby
The first Kentucky Derby was held the year Churchill Downs was built, in 1875, and since then it’s always been held on the first Saturday in May. Aristides was the first horse to win a Derby.
Today, the Kentucky Derby festival lasts for weeks. Many different types of races and parties occur before the event itself. It all begins with Thunder Over Louisville, held two weeks before the Derby itself. The Derby is the oldest consecutively-held Thoroughbred race in America. The majority of Derby winners have been bred within Kentucky.
And while the race itself is nicknamed “the fastest two minutes in sports,” only one horse ever won with a time under two minutes. Secretariat, the most famous Derby winner, scored 1:59 to win the race.
The first Derby was presented without any extra events or trappings, but over the years many different traditions have grown up around the race.
Today, the winning horse is famously draped in a garland of roses. But the roses were first presented to the women attending a Derby party. Because of the sensation the garland created, the president of Churchill Downs decided to make the rose the official flower of the Derby. The first garland was presented at the track in 1896.
The Twin Spires were built in 1895 when the track expanded to included a new grandstand. The 24-year-old architect behind the design decided that Churchill Downs needed something distinctive. Today, the spires are the most recognizable feature of the track.
The Kentucky Derby became a fashionable celebrity event in the 1920s. Icons like Babe Ruth and Ginger Rogers came to the track to watch the race, and soon others followed. Now the race is famous for drawing celebs and royalty from all around the world. Louisville’s horse racing past is linked to the Kentucky Derby, but it goes back even further than that.