Each week in April, Bourbon and Barns will work with the Kentucky Derby Museum and others to provide insight into the Derby's distinct history, character and charm. This week: Churchill Downs. Learn more about the Kentucky Derby Museum at www.derbymuseum.org. (Bourbon and Barns would like to extend special thanks to Chris Goodlett, Senior Curator of Collections at the museum, and all those who helped in this project).
Bourbon & Barns: Churchill Downs was founded in 1875 by Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, the grandson of William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. What can you tell us about Meriwether Lewis Clark?
Chris Goodlett: Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. (born 1846) had an impressive ancestral background: The Clark family on his father’s side and the Prather and Churchill families on his mother’s side. All were prominent families in the Louisville community. Clark’s mother died when he was young, so he was raised by his uncles, John and Henry Churchill. He attended St. Joseph College in Bardstown, Kentucky and briefly had a job as a bank teller.
It’s likely Clark was chosen to spearhead the creation of the Louisville Jockey Club (later known as Churchill Downs) due to his family’s wealth and ties to horse racing, as well as the fact that he had access to available land from his uncles, the same two that raised him from a very young age. Under the auspices of determining how best to plan a race program, Clark traveled to Europe in 1872. He was particularly struck by England’s Epsom Derby, a 1 ½ mile contest for three-year-olds on turf, or grass, which originally debuted as a one-mile race in 1780. This race became the largest influence on the Kentucky Derby, a 1 ½ mile race for three-year-olds on dirt that was run on the inaugural day of the inaugural meet, May 17, 1875 (the Derby was shortened to 1 ¼ miles in 1896).Since that first running, the Kentucky Derby has been run uninterrupted, making it the longest continuously held sporting event in the United States.
BB: The Twin Spires are a famous architectural feature of Churchill Downs. What inspired the Twin Spires and the architecture of Churchill Downs?
CG: The Twin Spires grandstand is the most noted architectural feature of Churchill Downs. The plans for a new grandstand began almost as soon as a new ownership group took over in 1894. Built in the Victorian Romanesque style, the grandstand and the noted Spires were designed by Joseph Baldez. As Baldez describes it, the Spires were largely ornamental, a late addition to the grandstand to give it a little extra flair. The grandstand opened in time for the 1895 race meet.
Baldez was 24 when he designed the grandstand and was always very modest about the historic significance of his iconic creation. In a 1954 Louisville Times article written by John Rogers, Baldez was asked about the Spires and stated “They aren’t any architectural triumph but are nicely proportioned.” However, he did go on to state that the Twin Spires “…have created more comment than anything else I ever did.”
BB: I understand Clark's vision for the race track and the Kentucky Derby was influenced by a visit to England's famous Epsom Derby. That race is known for its famous faces, fancy attire and pageantry. What aspects of British racing did Clark bring to the states? Are there elements of Clark's Epsom Derby experience that are still evident in the Kentucky Derby today?
CG: The greatest contribution the Epsom Derby made to the Kentucky Derby is the format of the race. Other than being run on dirt as opposed to turf (grass), the Kentucky Derby adopted the race distance and age requirements of its English predecessor. In addition, Clark of course hoped the Kentucky Derby would eventually match the tradition of the Epsom Derby. Also, some point to the fashion aspect of both and feel that Kentucky modeled that after England. However, including fashion and high society was just as much an economic decision for Clark as it was homage to the English. To be successful, Clark and his board knew the highest levels of society had to participate, both as investors and as patrons.
BB: The first Kentucky Derby attracted a crowd of 10,000 and the crowd has grown to more than 170,000. How has the track expanded to meet the demands of the large crowds?
CG: Expansion of Churchill Downs has been consistent since the early 20th century. In 1903, a new clubhouse was built to complement the 1895 grandstand. By 1920, it became necessary to add an extension to the grandstand to accommodate guests. The additions to the track go hand-in-hand with the increased popularity of the Kentucky Derby. In the late 19th century, the perception became that the Derby was in trouble, as small fields became common for the race. By 1915, many historians feel the Kentucky Derby solidly began its ascent as one of the world’s greatest Thoroughbred races, requiring the need for increased seating capacity.
In the 20th and 21st century, increasing seating capacity has been a consistent theme at Churchill Downs. The clubhouse underwent extensive renovations in the 1960s. In 2002, Churchill Downs announced an ambitious Phase I and Phase II renovation plan, which added increased seating capacity and luxury suites to both the grandstand and clubhouse. Still, additional seating to meet demand for Kentucky Derby tickets means the work is not finished. In 2017, Churchill Downs will unveil a major renovation to the second floor of the clubhouse, which will provide a better experience for the upwards of 13,000 that move through this area on Oaks and Derby days.
BB: The track includes an area called "Millionaire's Row." What exactly is "Millionaire's Row"?
CG: Millionaires Row is the nickname that was ascribed to seats on the 4th, 5th and 6th floors of the clubhouse, when these were added beginning in the 1960s. The nickname refers to that fact that these areas hosted VIPs and celebrities on Derby Day. When Churchill completed its Phase I and II renovation projects in 2004, it actually started calling designated sections on the 4th and 6th floor Millionaires Row, and it still hosts some of the biggest Derby Day VIPs.
BB: The Churchill Downs track is a one mile dirt oval. Has this changed at all over the years?
CG: Not much, but a ¾ mile chute was added to the west side of the track in 1883. The chute provided an extended linear path that avoided having to start certain races on a turn, which was seen as very unfair to horses on the outside. The chute was increased to one mile in 1920. Additionally, a 7/8 mile turf (grass) track was added in 1985.
BB: The first Kentucky Derby was run at a distance of a mile-and-a-half, but the current distance is a mile-and-a-quarter. Have there been any other changes to the race throughout the years?
CG: The race itself is a tradition-laden event, so not much has changed. A few things worth mentioning include the current weight assignments of 126 pounds for colts and 121 for fillies beginning in 1920 and the race’s traditional placement on the first Saturday in May, which began in 1932.