You know how big a sporting event is based on the amount of buzz it creates. There are few competitions that generate as much interest and excitement as the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. The race may only last around two minutes, but it is 120 seconds of pure enjoyment.
Are you interested in learning about Churchill Downs, the historic racetrack that hosts the Kentucky Derby? Are you hungry for some details and facts about the track – for example, what other races are held there? Our team of horse racing enthusiasts is going to tell you how you can get to Churchill Downs, not to mention how to make some money betting on the Derby.
Relax and get comfortable. Enjoy our guide covering the most renowned horse racing track in the entire United States of America.
If you want to know about the beginning of Churchill Downs, you have to go all the way back to 1875. Remember those famous explorers Lewis and Clark? William Clark’s grandson was the president of the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. rented 80 acres from relatives Henry and John Churchill, hoping he could turn the land into something big.
Unfortunately, after running out of money, Meriwether had no choice but to sell the piece of property to a gentleman by the name of William E. Applegate. Interestingly enough, it was Applegate who was the one responsible for making the Kentucky Derby the most prominent race for all Thoroughbreds.
Up until his control, Churchill Downs had been known mainly for the ability to gamble on horses. By the early 1900s, Churchill Downs was becoming known for being the home of the most significant race in the sport and not just a place to go make some bets. This was thanks to Applegate making great decisions. He hired the mayor of Louisville Charles F. Grainger to take over the daily duties of running the horse track.
Once they pushed for the Kentucky Derby to be featured as the beginning of the Triple Crown race, the rest, as they say, is history.
The most distinguished horse racing track in all of America didn’t get to that point without having some pretty unique aspects. You don’t get declared a National Historic Landmark (like Churchill Downs did in 1986) without being pretty darn important. If you were simply judging the US racetracks based on their capacity, look no further than the top of the list. Churchill Downs can accommodate a whopping 165,000 individuals, more than any other horse racing facility in North America!
In fact, only Tokyo Racecourse and Nakayama Racecourse (both located in Japan) can hold more spectators. Churchill Downs may be known for its rich history and the Kentucky Derby, but don’t forget how huge this place is. We are talking 147 acres in all.
It is a flat course with a 1-mile track. The track is compacted dirt and is about 80 feet wide. Typically, the dirt “plays fast,” but conditions have been muddy and fairly sloppy at certain times when Mother Nature steps in. There is also a turf track within the main oval that is slightly shorter in length – about 7/8 of a mile.
Over the years, Churchill Downs has been remodeled multiple times. The most notable restoration came in the early 2000s when over $120 million was spent on upgrades. The amazing Kentucky Derby Museum located on site is definitely worth a visit if you are fortunate to ever visit Louisville. All the history that has been captured at the Derby on the grounds of Churchill Downs can be found inside the walls of the museum.
Many racetracks around the country need to fill their calendar with events year-round to make the establishment sustainable. When the most acclaimed race for three-year-old Thoroughbreds is run at your place, that goes out the window. When the Kentucky Derby ends, it is time to start planning for next year’s event.
The Kentucky Derby is run the first Saturday of May, and it has been that way ever since 1875. As you may know, it is the first in the sequence of three that make up the Triple Crown races that take place over the course of about a month and a half.
The race is 1 ¼ miles, but you better pay attention once the gun goes off because the race doesn’t last very long. The winning time is usually just a shade over two minutes, and rarely less.
Monarchos ran the race in 1:59.97 in 2001, and Secretariat ran the fastest time ever recorded in 1973 at 1:59.40. In terms of records for the jockey, two men have won the Derby an astounding five times. Eddie Arcaro captured five Kentucky Derbies from 1938-1952, while Pennsylvanian native Bill Hartack accomplished the feat in 1969 riding Majestic Prince. Bill “The Shoe” Shoemaker won the Derby four times as a jockey, while a host of men have won three Derbies.
The biggest longshot to ever win the Derby came all the way back in 1913 when Donerail won as an incredible 91:1 favorite. Four horses have won the race by eight lengths, but that hasn’t been achieved since Assault clobbered the field in 1946.
It’s not all about records at the Kentucky Derby. If you are ever there, you are sure to come across a mint julip. The bourbon-based beverage has become a staple every first Saturday in May throughout the state of Kentucky.
Of course, there is Millionaire’s Row. These are the seats that the most famous celebrities and attendees position themselves in, with the females traditionally wearing large-brimmed hats. There is no shortage of fancy outfits and fancy people every year at the Derby, as it has become one of the most esteemed events in all of sports, let alone horse racing.
While the Kentucky Derby obviously takes the cake at Churchill Downs, it isn’t the only horse race that takes place there.
The Kentucky Oaks is a noteworthy event that is held exactly eight days before the Kentucky Derby every year. Along with the Derby, the Kentucky Oaks is the oldest-running sports event in United States history.
With a prize pool of $1 million, this race is run over 1 1/8 miles. Based on its attendance and interest, the Kentucky Oaks is one of the can’t-miss horse races every spring. Perhaps the most memorable Kentucky Oaks was in 2009 when Rachel Alexandra won by a record 20 ¼ lengths! Or how about when Lemons Forever won as a major underdog (47:1) in 2006?
This race isn’t shy when it comes to handing out the top prize, either. We can think of $600,000 reasons an owner wants to put his/her “filly” in the race.
Another Grade-I race, the Turf Classics Stakes takes place on the inside-turf track on the same day the Kentucky Derby is run. This tradition began in 1987, honoring horses who are a minimum of four years old.
Lure ran the fastest time ever recorded in the race in 1993 with a time of 1:46.34. Three horses have won the Turf Classic Stakes twice – most recently Divisidero in 2016 and 2017. Einstein won back-to-back Turf Stakes in 2008 and 2009, and Wise Dan celebrated consecutive victories in 2013 and 2014.
The Stephen Foster Handicap race started out in 1982 as a relatively unknown event. By 1988 it became a Grade-III race, and by 1995 it was promoted to Grade-II status. In 2002, it reached the Grade-I level and now boasts a $500,000 purse.
One of the cool things about the Stephen Foster Handicap is the automatic entry into the Breeders’ Cup awarded to the victorious horse. Oh, and remember the record for the biggest longshot to ever win the Kentucky Derby?
In 2003, Seek Gold was a discouraging 91:1 favorite at the start of the race despite ending up the winner. If you like action, the Stephen Foster Handicap should be right up your alley.
While Churchill Downs is mostly known for what happens during May and the summer months, don’t forget about the Clark Handicap towards the end of the calendar. Every single year around Thanksgiving, the best Thoroughbreds gather to race this 1 1/8-mile race.
The Clark Handicap has been run every year since 1875 (along with the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks), and the fastest time came in 2006. Premium Tap ran a speedy 1:47.39 as a four year old. While three horses have won the race twice, we haven’t seen the feat accomplished since 1978 when Bob’s Dusty won his second Clark Handicap in a row.
All this juicy information about Churchill Downs probably has you geared up to schedule a trip. If you live in or around the state of Kentucky, all you have to do is hop in your car and head towards the University of Louisville campus. Just outside Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium sits the famous Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum.
If you aren’t from around the area and have to fly in, no problem. Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport is just 99 miles away, or about a 90-minute drive straight southwest down the I-71 S.
If you are coming from a different direction, it is only about 125 miles south of Indianapolis, and Churchill Downs sits about 180 miles due north of Nashville, Tennessee. The fact of the matter is if you are craving a trip to the Kentucky Derby or you want to see the artifacts inside the museum, you can most definitely find a reasonable and affordable method of transportation.
Whatever you do, plan ahead of time. If you think you are just going to stroll up to Churchill Downs the morning of the Kentucky in your sweats and find a seat, forget it. Buy your tickets well in advance and wear your daintiest outfit.
Whether that is you or you are just in slacks and show up in an Uber, once you arrive, it won’t matter. Churchill Downs is a place you have to experience for yourself to justify how special it is.
This page would not be complete if we didn’t conclude with some valuable betting advice for Churchill Downs.
Not everyone is lucky enough to be an in-person spectator at the Kentucky Derby. We can’t all make it to Louisville, Kentucky, the first Saturday in May. The great news is that that doesn’t mean we have to be left out of an opportunity to make some money while we watch the race. Online betting sites allow you to place wagers as if you were standing in the betting parlor area at the property.
It is, however, VITAL that you carefully choose which sites to use. There are some excellent options that are reputable and trustworthy, but there are also some sites that should be avoided at all costs.
Of course, if you happen to be at the race, picking a horse to win and placing a wager won’t be a problem. You will just have to contest with the thousands of others stampeding the hallways hoping to cash in on the race as well.
Churchill Downs is a magical place. We hope you get the chance to visit the racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky, at some point. If not, at least you have this organized guide that explains Churchill Downs in great detail.
We started off with a brief history on how and when Churchill Downs came to be. After giving you some details about the racetrack itself, we jumped right into the granddaddy of them all, the Kentucky Derby. We mentioned the other races that take place at the location, and then we told you how to get there.
No guides we write would seem “finished” without providing you with some betting advice. We wanted to cover ALL the bases. When it comes to watching the Kentucky Derby or any other race taking place at Churchill Downs, you will want to get in on the action.
Betting on horse races is already fun. When we are talking about the most historic racetrack in the United States, it gets even more exciting.