The Old World Charms of Churchill Downs

I am happy to turn over the blog today to some friends who are Guest Posting about Churchill Downs.  The history and tradition of Churchill Downs makes it a fascinating place to visit.  Enjoy!

Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs, as some may know, is the legendary racecourse where the Kentucky Derby takes place. It’s been operational since 1875, and has helped the Derby to gain a reputation as perhaps the greatest horse race in the world. And though it’s been renovated and updated numerous times through the decades, Churchill Downs retains an undeniable aura of history – sometimes in a visual sense.

Now, this is not to say that there isn’t a heavily commercial side to the Kentucky Derby and the course that houses it these days. The television viewership and the live attendance rake in substantial amounts of money, to say nothing of the side industries that sponsor the races and sell goods or services on the grounds. Additionally, the betting activity surrounding the Derby is big, and getting bigger. UK sports betting markets with intuitive sites and apps and accessible cash-out methods have established a model that’s quickly being followed by U.S. companies as betting is being more widely legalized. This means it’s likely that the Derby is on track to be monetized to an even greater degree, and in more innovative ways.

Betting, sponsorship, and money do not factor into why the Kentucky Derby is so special, however. This is more a result of prestige that’s built up over time, which is partly a result of some legendary races and competitors, but which is also tied to the grounds themselves. Today, those grounds remain a wonder to behold even if you aren’t a fan of horse racing, and you’ve never considered donning a “derby hat” or placing a bet on a contending horse. There’s just something about Churchill Downs that should speak to anyone with an appreciation for rustic beauty and old-world attractions (or as “old” as American establishments inland from the East Coast can really be).

The Twin Spires

The first thing most people tend to notice about these grounds, whether in photos or in person, is the set of twin spires that tower over the seating areas and the track itself. Designed by one Joseph Dominic Baldez, the spires were erected in 1895, and have stood proudly (with some repair and upkeep) ever since. They are the oldest noteworthy feature on the grounds, and certainly speak to an older, almost pastoral aesthetic.

The Front Gate

Another noteworthy feature visitors with an appreciation for history will want to seek out is the front gate which, incidentally, is difficult to miss. Not only does the front gate very much convey shades of the past (frankly it looks exactly as you might imagine an updated 1920s racecourse gate to look like), but there is also a spectacular statue that acts as a sort of centerpiece. The statue was unveiled in 2009 and commemorates Barbaro, a famous horse who won the Kentucky Derby in 2006 and tragically had his career cut short by illness. Barbaro is something of a legend, and though his Kentucky Derby win occurred less than 20 years ago, his statue seems to speak for more than a century of champions, stories, and wonderful animals.

The Art

It’s less of a design feature of the course itself, but for a further sense of history, some might also be interested in getting a look at the mural that was completed in the early-2000s as part of a course-wide refurbishment. Painted by Pierre Bellocq, it depicts all of the jockeys who won the Kentucky Derby between 1875 and 2004. Again, it’s not so much a design feature as an elaborate decoration, but it still helps to deepen the sense of history and, frankly, reverence, one can feel at Churchill Downs.

The Grounds

Beyond specific features and historical tributes, the grounds themselves also give you a sense of the same old-world charm referenced previously. The grounds, from the grandstand, to the classic white fencing, to the dirt track itself look very much like slightly updated versions of what they might have been when they were first designed so long ago. The numerous stables with their steepled, low-hanging green rooftops and white wooden frames convey a certain class without being gaudy or over the top. And the general vibrance of the surrounding area – the rich green of the grasses, the lush trees dotted here and there, and the colorful blooms adorning the stables – cast the whole racecourse in a natural light.

It truly is an extraordinary place, and one worth visiting whether or not you know the first thing about the races that happen there.

I'd love to hear what you think...