Churchill Downs, located on Central Avenue in Louisville, Kentucky, is a Thoroughbred racetrack most famous for hosting the Kentucky Derby. It officially opened in 1875, and held the first Kentucky Derby and the first Kentucky Oaks that same year.
The track is named for John and Henry Churchill, who leased 80 acres of land to their nephew, Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. (grandson of explorer William Clark). Clark was president of the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association, which formed in 1874. His father-in-law, Richard Ten Broeck, was an accomplished horse breeder and trainer, and introduced Clark to horse racing, attending the English Derby at Epsom Downs outside London.
Churchill Downs filled a void in Louisville left by the closing of Oakland and Woodlawn, two earlier race courses. The then-rural location was located along the Louisville and Nashville Railroad tracks, allowing for easy transport of horses. Clark, who preferred longer races to the relatively short ones that had become popular by the 1890s, was running short of funds, and in 1893 sold the track to a syndicate led by William Applegate. The new ownership would soon institute many changes, such as shortening the length of the signature race to its modern distance of a mile and one quarter (10 furlongs), commissioning the famous twin spire grandstand in 1895, and adorning the winner of the Derby with a garland of roses, a tradition that also began in 1895.
In early 1902, Applegate turned over operation of the track to Charles F. Grainger, then the mayor of Louisville, in an effort to move Churchill Downs away from being primarily known for gambling. A new clubhouse was built in order to promote social interaction, and new events such as steeplechases, automobile races and band concerts were held at the track.
In 1908, parimutuel betting machines were introduced as gambling began to be less controversial again, and the wagering portion of the track's business became more profitable.
Churchill Downs was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986 and on Friday, June 19, 2009, Churchill Downs hosted its first-ever night race.