The Kentucky Derby is the most exciting and glamorous sporting event in the world. But beyond being the globe’s most legendary horse race, the derby is a celebration of the best of American and Southern tradition. For this reason, a trip to Churchill Downs for the greatest two minutes in sports has continued to grow in popularity throughout its 143-year history and remains a bucket-list event for people all over the world.
While its rich traditions and history make the Kentucky Derby iconic, Churchill Downs’ tradition of change has helped drive its success and make it the spectacle it is today. From shortening the race’s distance in 1896 to more recently completing millions of dollars of construction and renovation, the derby has continued to grow while honoring the integrity of the race originally set forth when the derby was founded.
The Kentucky Derby is the oldest continuously held sporting event in North America, having been run every single year at Churchill Downs since it was founded in 1875. Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of famed Lewis-and-Clark explorer William Clark, founded the derby after traveling to England in 1872, where he attended the Epsom Derby and met the French Jockey Club, inspiring him to create a spectacle horse race in the United States.
In 1874 Clark’s uncles gave him land to build a racetrack, and Clark rounded up a group of racing fans known as the Louisville Jockey Club to raise money for construction. On May 17th, 1875, the racetrack opened for the first Kentucky Derby. Fifteen three-year-old Thoroughbred horses raced 1½ miles in front of approximately 10,000 spectators.
One of Churchill Downs’ most iconic changes took place in its first 20 years to accommodate growing crowds: A 285-foot grandstand embellished with the famous twin spires greeted derby guests for the first time in 1895. The following years introduced many of the derby’s famous traditions. Celebrities began to attend in the early 1900s; the red rose became the official flower in 1902; the derby was established as a premier sporting event in 1915 when its name splashed across the country’s newspapers as Regret became the first filly to win. In 1919, Sir Barton was the first winner of what would later be coined the Triple Crown, winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. This led to permanently scheduling the derby for the first Saturday in May, starting in 1931.
The media began to play a bigger role in 1925, when 6 million listeners tuned in to the first network radio broadcast for what a sports columnist coined Run for the Roses. In 1932 the race was internationally broadcast, and the winner was the first to be draped in a garland of roses. The first local telecast of the derby took place in 1949, and only three years later the derby was broadcast on national television to as many as 15 million viewers.
Throughout all of this, Churchill Downs continued to expand to accommodate the growing size of derby crowds, which by now have reached a record 170,000. A tunnel was constructed in 1938 to connect the field inside the track with the grandstand, creating an infield where fans could enjoy the race and where the derby winner’s circle stands today. Millionaires Row was introduced in 1966, starting a long period of construction of premium seating that continues today.
In 2005, a sweeping $121 million clubhouse renovation added luxury suites, outdoor boxes, and breathtaking balconies. This has been followed by an additional $250 million in expansions and upgrades that are still taking place today. These include major enhancements to a number of the track’s premium dining areas, additional balconies, renovation of the pagoda, construction of new boxes and seating along the rail, and improved parking lots, just to name a few.
Currently, Churchill Downs is building the new Starting Gate Suites to open for the derby in 2018. This $37 million structure will feature three floors of individual suites, along with dining and event space. The new luxury suites will feature indoor lounge seating with a bar and a private, tiered balcony that overlooks the start of the Kentucky Derby at the top of the homestretch. These individual suites will be able to accommodate groups of various sizes.
The construction and upgrades throughout the history of Churchill Downs have ensured there’s a place for everyone at the Kentucky Derby, whether picnicking in the infield or enjoying fine dining on a private balcony with breathtaking views of the race.