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." The Founding of Churchill Downs began in 1872, when Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark traveled to England and France in 1872. Clark attended the Epsom Derby in England, which sparked his ambition to create a spectacle horse racing event in America. Upon his return to the states, Clark began the development of the racetrack, with intentions to showcase the Kentucky breeding industry that eventually became known as "Churchill Downs."
The track was constructed on eighty acres of land that Clark leased from his uncles, John and Henry Churchill, approximately three miles south of downtown Louisville. To fund the initial construction, Clark raised money by selling membership subscriptions to the track. With 320 membership subscriptions sold for $100 each, Clark raised a total of $32,000. This profit was used to construct a clubhouse, grandstand, Porter's Lodge, and six stables on site for the opening of the track. Throughout the years, the initial structures still stand, but the racetrack has continued to grow and modernize. Today, Churchill Downs spans 147 acres with its most significant structure being the Twin Spires, an architectural feature which sits atop the grandstand and has become the universally recognized symbol for Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby.
Churchill Downs had its first official race day, which formally opened the track on May 17, 1875. For the opening meet, Clark created three major stakes races- the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and Clark Handicap. These were modeled after three premier races in England- the Epsom Derby, Epsom Oaks and St. Leger Stakes. 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. A crowd reaching 10,000 spectators witnessed the fifteen thoroughbreds run the first 1.5 mile long Kentucky Derby. Aristides' victory launched a tradition that has been held continuously at Churchill Downs annually since their debut in 1875, making this year the 141st running of Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.
Today, Churchill Downs Racetrack is owned and operated by Churchill Downs Incorporated. Churchill Downs currently holds the record for the longest-running, continuous sporting event in the United States. In 1875, the track's inaugural meet reached nearly 10,000 spectators, unknowingly initiating an annual ritual that is now universally recognized bringing in record-breaking crowds of more than 170,000. With many changes over the course of three centuries, the Kentucky Derby is known to be the most exciting two minutes in sports.