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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
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
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
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.
The Founding of Churchill Downs
While traveling in England and France in 1872-1873,
26-year-old Col. M. Lewis Clark, devised the idea
of a Louisville Jockey Club for conducting race
meets. Clark toured and visited with a number of
prominent racing leaders, including England's Admiral
Rous and France's Vicompte Darn, vice president
of the French Jockey Club.
Upon his return from Europe, Clark began development
of his racetrack which would serve to showcase the
Kentucky breeding industry. The track would eventually
become known as "Churchill Downs." The
first reference of the name Churchill Downs came
in an 1883 Kentucky Derby article reported by the
former Louisville Commercial.
"The crowd in the grand stand sent out a volume
of voice, and the crowd in the field took it up
and carried it from boundary to boundary of Churchill
The track was incorporated as Churchill Downs in
The first public notice of establishment of the
track was reported in the May 27, 1874 edition of
the Courier-Journal. The notice was met with some
objections because another track had already been
proposed by the Falls City Racing Association for
a site near the river just east of downtown Louisville.
Clark and a group of prominent Louisville gentlemen
met at the Galt House on June 18, 1874 to prepare
articles of incorporation with the actual filing
for the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park
Association taking place on June 20.
To fund the construction of the track, Clark raised
$32,000 by selling 320 membership subscriptions
to the track at $100 each. Eighty acres of land,
approximately three miles south of downtown were
leased from Clark's uncles, John and Henry Churchill.
A clubhouse, grandstand, porter's lodge and six
stables were all eventually constructed on the site
for the opening of the track.
For his inaugural race meet, Clark designed his
three major stakes races, the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky
Oaks and Clark Handicap, after the three premier
races in England, the Epsom Derby, Epsom Oaks and
St. Leger Stakes, respectively. These events have
each been held continuously at Churchill since their
debut in 1875. However, in 1953, the Clark was moved
from the spring to the fall meet. The Falls City
was also offered during the inaugural meet and after
four interruptions, the race continues to be held.
The track formally opened May 17, 1875 with four
races scheduled. The winner of the first race was
Bonaventure, however the winner of the day's featured
race, the Kentucky Derby, was a three-year-old chestnut
colt, Aristides. Owned by H.P. McGrath, Aristides
was trained by and ridden by two African-Americans,
Ansel Williamson and Oliver Lewis, respectively.
Despite the success of the first Kentucky Derby,
the track was not financially successful and on
November 24, 1894 the New Louisville Jockey Club
was incorporated. William F. Schulte was appointed
president and Clark was retained as presiding judge
for the track.
Under Schulte, a new grandstand was constructed
during fall 1894 - spring 1895 on the opposite side
of the track for a reported cost of $100,000. The
grandstand was complemented by two spires constructed
atop the roof. The twin spires, a simple architectural
element, would become the symbol of Churchill Downs
and the Kentucky Derby.
1874 -- Col. M. Lewis Clark begins rescue of Kentucky's
declining stock farm. Develops Louisville Jockey
Club on land secured from his uncles John and Henry
At the turn of the century, financial problems
plagued the racetrack. On October 1, 1902 a group
headed by former Louisville Mayor Charles Grainger,
Charlie Price and Matt J. Winn agreed to takeover
the operation. The takeover was done by amending
the track's articles of incorporation with no transfer
in the form of a deed. Grainger was named president,
Price racing secretary and Winn vice president.
Under this administration, the track finally showed
its first profit in 1903, 28 years after its founding.
As the Kentucky Derby grew in popularity so did
the racetrack. In 1907 the owners of Churchill Downs,
who were officials of the New Louisville Jockey
Club, joined with nearby Douglas Park to form the
Louisville Racing Association. The purpose of the
new Association was to establish race dates and
policies for racing in the City. This relationship
led to the formation of the Kentucky Jockey Club
in February 1919 as a holding company for Churchill
and three other tracks in the State: Latonia in
the north, Lexington in the bluegrass region, and
Douglas Park and Churchill Downs in Louisville.
Under the powerful Kentucky Jockey Club, the track's
domain grew between 1919-1929. During this time
the company acquired possession of the newly built
Fairmount Park in East St. Louis, IL in 1925 and
also constructed Lincoln Fields in Crete, IL in
1926. With five tracks under its control, the Kentucky
Jockey Club began the process of dissolving the
organization in December 1927 for the purpose of
reorganizing as a separate holding corporation under
the laws of the State of Delaware. According to
a Louisville Times article dated December 29, 1927
. . ."incorporated under the laws of Delaware,
provides for a capitalization of $6,000,000, an
increase of $2,600,000 over the present capitalization."
The process was finalized on January 16, 1928 with
the American Turf Association serving as the new
holding company for Churchill Downs, Douglas Park,
Lexington, and Latonia in Kentucky and Fairmount
Park, Lincoln Fields and Washington Park in Illinois.
Washington Park was purchased by the association
during this period.
The Fairmount Park track was sold in 1929, and
in 1935, the association began to dramatically trim
its holdings with the sale of Washington Park, the
closing and eventual sale of Lexington, and the
end of racing at Douglas Park. The reduction left
the association with three tracks: Churchill Downs,
Latonia and Lincoln Fields. Due to economic reasons
Churchill Downs and Latonia formed a separate operating
corporation titled, Churchill Downs-Latonia Incorporated
on January 28, 1937. Lincoln Fields was operated
by Lincoln Fields Jockey Club, Inc., but all three
tracks were still owned by the parent corporation,
American Turf Association.
On January 13, 1942, officials of Churchill Downs-Latonia
Inc. sold the Latonia track and abandoned racing
at the site. Later that year on April 24, the Churchill
Downs-Latonia Incorporated's name was officially
changed to Churchill Downs Incorporated. The American
Turf Association continued its affiliation with
Churchill, but sold its last out-of-state holding,
Lincoln Fields, in March 1947.
The corporate direction of Churchill Downs became
a key topic in November 1948. Backed by track President
Matt Winn (1938-49) and other board members, a committee
was created to study the feasibility of the creation
of a foundation to purchase Churchill and operate
the track as a nonprofit entity with its earnings
donated to the University of Louisville School of
The proposal was founded upon the experience of
the Churchill Downs Foundation, a charitable organization
led by J. Graham Brown. Each fall, several days
of racing were held for charitable purposes. During
a 10-year period 1940-50s, the foundation donated
approximately $1.5 million to charity.
The proposal was considered up until the death
of Winn on October 6, 1949. Following the naming
of William Veeneman as chairman and chief executive
officer of both Churchill Downs and the American
Turf Association on Oct. 10, and the selection of
Bill Corum as track president, the proposal was
permanently shelved December 30, 1949.
The end of the once mighty American Turf Association
came April 3, 1950 as stockholders voted to dissolve
the association. Shareholders of the association
exchanged their shares on a one for one basis for
Churchill Downs Incorporated stock.
Under the direction of Bill Corum, a former New
York Times and New York Journal-American sports
columnist, Churchill Downs and the famed Kentucky
Derby continued to grow and modernize: the first
national telecast of the Kentucky Derby aired May
3, 1952 the first barns constructed of concrete
firewalls were built in 1952 more seating boxes
were added to the second floor of the grandstand
and clubhouse in 1953 with 400 additional third-floor
boxes in the clubhouse film patrol was installed
in 1954 to provide replays to the racing officials
in 1955 a $300,000 automatic sprinkler system was
installed in the entire grandstand and clubhouse.
Following Corum's death in December 1958, Wathen
Knebelkamp was selected as his successor on March
3, 1959. Under his direction an aggressive building
and renovation program was initiated. During Knebelkamp's
tenure improvements rose from $128,000 in 1959 to
$1,016,000 in 1966. Renovations ranged from the
installation of 1,000 seats on the north end of
the grandstand (and construction of a museum in
1960) to the addition of the fourth and fifth floors
of the Skye Terrace "Millionaire's Row"
The success of the track continued under Knebelkamp,
but Churchill's eighth president was faced with
speculation that the track was a prime target for
a hostile takeover. In January,1960 a proposal was
made to have the City of Louisville issue revenue
bonds to purchase Churchill Downs. However, the
proposal, which was made in an effort to secure
the Derby and prevent outside ownership of the track,
was turned down by aldermen. In December 1963, the
Kentucky Racing Commission set forth a proposal
to establish a new organization to purchase Churchill
and Lexington's Keeneland Race Course and to modernize
both tracks through revenue bonds.
Finally, in March 1969, as a counter to a stock
takeover attempt by National Industries, a group
of Churchill board members, headed by John Galbreath,
Warner L. Jones, Jr. and Arthur "Bull"
Hancock formed what was called the "Derby Protection
Group." They successfully outbid National Industries
for control of the Company, moving the stock from
$22 a share to $35.
Lynn Stone became Churchill Downs ninth president
as he replaced the retiring Knebelkamp in December
1969. Stone had come to Churchill in 1961 as resident
manager and was appointed vice president and general
manager in 1966.
Under Stone's leadership: the Derby celebrated
its 100th running in 1974, with a record 163,628
on hand; added the Skye Terrace's sixth floor in
1977 for $1.8 million; computerized the pari-mutuel
system in 1982; and began development of a $7 million
Kentucky Derby Museum.
As president, Lynn Stone headed the efforts that
ended two separate takeover attempts by Brownell
Combs II of Spendthrift Farm and Irwin L. Jacobs,
respectively in 1984. In August 1984, Stone resigned,
following huge financial losses that resulted from
two years of failed summer racing. Stone was replaced
by acting President Thomas H. Meeker, a former general
counsel to Churchill Downs while with the law firm
of Wyatt, Tarrant and Combs. In September 1984,
Meeker was named permanently to the position.
At 40, Meeker became the youngest president since
Meriwether Lewis Clark organized the track at age
29. Meeker immediately began a five-year, $25 million
renovation renaissance, headed by: (dollar figures
in millions) $2.5 core renovations (1984) $3.2 Matt
Winn Turf Course (1985) $2.5 paddock construction
(1986) $5 clubhouse improvements (1987) $3.7 Skye
Terrace updating (1988) $1.2 barn area improvements
These renovations led to a resurgence of the track
and helped attract the Breeders' Cup Championship.
Churchill Downs has responded by successfully hosting
four of the top five attendance totals for the event:
a record 80,452 in 1998; 71,671 in 1994, second;
71,237 in 1988, third; and 66,204 in 1991, fifth.
Under Meeker's leadership, and through the direction
of former Chairman Warner L. Jones, Jr., 1984 to
1992, and current Chairman William S. Farish, the
track has experienced impressive growth in all areas.
Combined Kentucky Derby Day wagering, on-track
and national, has increased from $26,805,205 in
1985 to $88,941,006 in 1998. Churchill Downs has
become a leader in simulcast wagering as both a
host site and receiver. As a receiver, the $15 million
Sports Spectrum, a state-of-the-art wagering center
located seven miles from the track and constructed
in 1992, has proved a national leader. The success
in these areas has helped fuel Churchill Downs horsemen's
purses, which have risen from a daily average of
$187,363 during the 1990 Spring Meet to a record
$469,643 during the 1999 season. Fall Meet purses
have also grown to a daily average of $378,058.
A key to the future success of Churchill Downs
Incorporated rests upon the Company's potential
for development and expansion. Headed by its most
aggressive development effort since the days of
the American Turf Association in the 1920s-1930s,
the Churchill Downs Management Company, a wholly
owned subsidiary of Churchill Downs Incorporated,
opened Hoosier Park at Anderson in September 1994.
The dual Standardbred and Thoroughbred track, located
in Anderson, Ind., approximately 40 miles northeast
of Indianapolis, serves as Indiana's first pari-mutuel
racetrack and Churchill's first out-of-state racing
site since 1937. Under the Hoosier Park license,
the Company also operates off-track betting facilities
in Merrillville, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, Ind.
In December 1997, Churchill Downs Incorporated
formed the wholly owned subsidiary Churchill Downs
Investment Company (CDIC), which oversees the Company's
industry-related investments. In recent years, the
Company has continued its aggressive growth cycle.
In April 1998, the Company finalized the purchase
of Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., and Kentucky Horse
Center in Lexington, Ky., for $22 million. In January
1999, the Company purchased a majority interest
in Charlson Broadcast Technologies, LLC. The venture
was developed as a means to provide simulcast graphic
software and video services to racetracks and off-track
In April 1999, the Company completed a $86 million
purchase of Calder Race Course in Miami. The acquisition
of Hollywood Park followed in September 1999. In
2000, Churchill Downs Incorporated completed the
acquisition of Arlington International outside of
Chicago, adding another entity to the Churchill
Downs Incorporated network of racetracks.
Churchill Downs Incorporated's success has been
achieved through a corporate strategy based on strengthening
its racing program and the Kentucky Derby, increasing
the track's share of the national simulcast market,
and the geographic expansion of its racing operations.
This commitment to quality racing has made the Company
one of the premier racing centers in North America.
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