Churchill Downs Racetrack

Ask any average person in the United States to name a horse racetrack, and many will mention Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. The world-famous racing venue, with the iconic twin spires, has embodied the American horse racing industry for decades, perhaps all the way back to its founding in 1875.

Churchill Downs is, of course, home to the Kentucky Derby, the most viewed and most wagered-upon horse race each year. In fact, the “Run for the Roses” may be the most famous horse race in the world. (Some racetracks with big events in Europe could be ready to debate this point.)

Nevertheless, there’s no denying Churchill Downs’ eminent place in the horse racing landscape. This page is your best resource for information about the venerable Kentucky racetrack.

Churchill Downs quick facts

Track Opening Date:May 17, 1875
Longest Track Length:One mile
Track Surface(s):Dirt, turf
Seating Capacity:170,000
Type(s) of Horse Races:Throughbreds
Most Prestigious Race:The Kentucky Derby
Other Major Races:Kentucky Oaks, Turf Classic Stakes
Simulcast Off-Track Betting Facility?:Yes
Historical Horse Racing Machines?:No

Churchill Downs history

The Churchill Downs racetrack was first conceived by Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., son of a prominent architect and a grandson of William Clark, one half of the renowned “Lewis & Clark” exploration. Colonel Clark was inspired to build the track after a trip to England where he viewed the famous Epsom Derby at Britain’s venerable Epsom Downs.

Clark raised money for his vision in the three years leading up to 1875. He sold membership subscriptions and generated $320,000 to finance the purchase of the land and the improvements to be built upon it. The initial tract he secured was an 80-acre piece of land in the Louisville area.

The first races were run at Churchill Downs on May 17, 1875. Among the races that day were the Clark Handicap, the Kentucky Oaks, and the marquee event, the Kentucky Derby. All three races were modeled after prominent races in England with the Epsom Derby serving as the spiritual forerunner of the Kentucky Derby.

The track never closed its doors over the next 150 years. It has expanded its land holdings to encompass 147 acres, and a continual series of modernizing improvements have included the construction of the track’s signature structure: the two white spires that tower above the grandstand.

The track is now owned and operated by a corporation of the same name, making it the flagship property in Churchill Downs Incorporated’s vast portfolio of tracks around the United States. The Kentucky Derby has been run there every year since 1875. More than 150,000 people flock to the track each May to watch the annual “Run for the Roses.”

The Kentucky Derby

Obviously, the race tied most closely with Churchill Downs is the Kentucky Derby: nothing short of the most popular and best-known horse race in the United States, and arguably the world.

The Derby is an annual race. It almost always runs on the first Saturday in May.

The Kentucky Derby pits three-year-old thoroughbreds against one another. The contest is a flat race run over 1.25 miles of dirt track. The number of horses in the race is limited to 20 of the best horses in all of racing for that year. The Derby is known informally as the “Run for the Roses” due to the blanket of roses draped over the winner each year.

The Derby is the first leg of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. The Triple Crown is the most prestigious series in American horse racing. Horses that manage to win all three legs of the Triple Crown—the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes in Maryland, and the Belmont Stakes in New York—earn legendary status alongside the greatest racehorses the sport has ever seen. It is no hyperbole to say for over a century the Kentucky Derby has hosted the greatest horses ever to race on American soil.

Those who attend the Derby take part in several traditions related to food, dress, and behavior. For one thing, the official drink of the Derby is the mint julep, a concoction of bourbon, mint, and simple syrup. The concession stands at Churchill Downs also serve burgoo, a meat stew traditionally consumed in the Bluegrass State.

Attendees may pay general admission prices and view the race from the infield. Meanwhile, the better seats go to the high-paying patrons in “Millionaires Row” who wear elaborate outfits and lavish hats to enjoy their beverages in a genteel setting.

The Kentucky Derby is nothing short of a pilgrimage for fans of horse racing and for those who love sports-related spectacles. It is a chance both to observe history and to step back into it, as many of the activities are throwbacks to an earlier time.

Other races at Churchill Downs

Though by far the most famous, the Kentucky Derby is not the only important race at the track each year. In fact, there are more than a dozen graded thoroughbred races that take place on the dirt on an annual basis. Those include five other Grade I races, the highest prestige level for thoroughbred racing.

Of those five Grade I races, the Kentucky Oaks stands out as the track’s second-most prestigious event. The 1.125-mile race occurs as part of the leadup to the Derby itself, usually on the Friday evening before the big race. It is reserved for three-year-old fillies only. (Note that fillies have competed in and won the Derby itself in the past.) The winner of the Kentucky Oaks is traditionally draped in lilies, giving the race its “Lilies for the Fillies” nickname.

Other top races at Churchill Downs include the Turf Classic, the Derby City Distaff, the Churchill Downs Stakes, and La Troienne Stakes. Those races are reserved for horses four years old or above and thus do not bear the same level of prestige as the top two. Nevertheless, they are big-time horse races and only add to the full picture of horse racing occurring each year in the shadow of the twin spires.

How to bet at Churchill Downs

Whether you are visiting Churchill Downs to watch the Kentucky Derby or other races during the year, it’s important to understand how to place a horse wager. There are more than 1,000 betting windows at the track, to say nothing of the infinite opportunities you have at your fingertips through the TwinSpires app.

Horse wagering can be as simple or complicated as you like. Common wagers you can make at Churchill Downs include:

  • Win (single horse) — a horse to finish first
  • Place (single horse) — a horse to finish first or second
  • Show (single horse) — a horse to finish first, second or third
  • Exacta (multiple horses) — two horses to finish first and second in an exact order
  • Trifecta (multiple horses) — three horses will finish first, second and third in an exact order
  • Superfecta (multiple horses) — four horses will finish first, second, third and fourth in an exact order

For the wagers involving a single horse, you can choose any or all of the three options on the same horse in the same race. In other words, it’s possible to bet that a horse will win, place and show.

Meanwhile, for the “exotic” wagers involving multiple horses, you can remove the requirement about the finishing order. You can also designate multiple horses to finish in each position. However, expect to pay extra for the privilege of using either of these options.

Once you’ve figured out how you want to wager, proceed to one of the betting windows and announce to the teller the track (if not at Churchill Downs), the race number, and the horse(s) you want to bet. You should also say if you want to eliminate the order requirement (a box bet) or bet on multiple horses in the same position (a wheel bet).

TwinSpires mobile app

TwinSpires is the online horse betting app that represents Churchill Downs and its parent company, Churchill Downs Incorporated. The app’s name is derived from the track’s signature architectural feature.

TwinSpires acts as an off-track betting parlor in the palm of your hand. From your mobile device (or computer, if you want), you can place wagers on horse races around the world. In doing so, you never have to worry about the time of day or time of year, as there’s always a race happening somewhere.

You can download the TwinSpires app as you would download any other type of app. It is available for both Apple and Android devices.

New users can take advantage of welcome offers at TwinSpires, and others can benefit from the site’s ongoing bonuses and promotions. Create an account and log on to see what extra money is available.

FAQ about Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs hosts races during the spring, summer and fall seasons. Its only dark times are during the winter months, although simulcast wagering is available there year-round.

You must be 18 years or older to wager on horse racing in Kentucky. Those under 18 can enter Churchill Downs, but they must be accompanied by an adult and cannot participate in any wagering.

General admission tickets to enter the grounds at Churchill Downs are $10 for adults. Seniors (60+) only have to pay $3 to enter, and children under the age of 12 get in free. Reserved seating costs more (in some cases much more, depending on the seat location and event).

Churchill Downs, like all Kentucky racetracks, is overseen by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. If you have any questions or concerns about your experiences at Churchill Downs, don’t hesitate to contact the KHRC.