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Churchill Downs History

There's more to the Kentucky Derby than mint juleps, crazy hats, and "My Old Kentucky Home." 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." On May 17th, 1875 the first Kentucky Derby winner is Aristides (a 3 year old chesnut colt).

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.

In 1895, a new grandstand opens and it is topped by the still-famous Twin Spires. 1903 is the first year the Derby is a profitable event and its popularity also increases. In 1904, the red rose becomes the official flower of the Derby, which is still called "The Run for the Roses." In 1911, the minimum wager is reduced from $5 to $2. The gold trophy that is still presented to the winner to this day is presented for the first time in 1924. The box starting mechanism is used for the Derby in 1930.

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. Be part of the excitement this year and buy your Kentucky Derby tickets today!


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