The father of Churchill Downs racecourse was Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, who after extensive research of European racecourses, set about creating what was to become the venue for The Kentucky Derby.
There had been horseracing in Kentucky before. The first official racetrack opened in Kentucky in 1789. However it was not until 1875 that the now-famous Churchill Downs racetrack, that hosts the Kentucky Derby, was launched.
Clark took his lead from England for his three showpiece horse races. He based The Kentucky Derby on England’s premier event, The Epsom Derby. Similarly the Kentucky Oaks was inspired by The Epsom Oaks (the same course and distance as the Derby but for fillies rather than colts). He mirrored England’s St Leger with the eponymous Clark Handicap.
The first Kentucky Derby, run on the track’s opening day in 1875, was won by Aristides while the first televised Kentucky Derby was in 1952. A crowd of nearly 164,000 witnessed the hundredth Kentucky Derby in 1974 Churchill Downs has subsequently hosted the Breeders Cup events on several occasions and the daily prize money totals per meeting have risen rapidly.
The home of the Kentucky Derby has had a rocky financial road since that forward-thinker M L Clark founded Churchill Downs, but he would be proud of his legacy. The Kentucky Derby remains the foremost horse racing event in the USA today and that doesn’t look like changing anytime soon.
Possibly the most incredible Kentucky Derby as a visual spectacle was the last-to-first ride given to Mine That Bird by Calvin Borel in 2009. From tailed off to easy victor, Borel’s mount passed the entire field up the inside.
In 2014 California Chrome provided a fairytale moment and gave hope to all those who play the sport at the bottom end of the food chain. For California Chrome was bred from a dirt cheap stallion out of a $8000 mare that nobody thought had the breeding to produce anything worthwhile. Yet the colt trained by unheralded handler, the 77-year-old Art Sherman beat all the blue bloods with ease – and followed up in the Preakness Stakes to boot.