Recently, I heard a piece of a radio broadcast from WHAS from years ago. The show was music themed, but in a break the DJ encouraged listeners to come out to the Louisville Downs, a track that’s often forgot about in town nowadays despite the local sports community that’s often very equine-centric. With that in mind, I thought I’d take a look at this track and its lasting impact on regional horse racing.
What I found as I began to dig deeper was that Louisville Downs was really just scratching the surface, now for years the commonwealth of Kentucky as a whole and the city of Louisville specifically has been closely aligned with the Sport of Kings, and that’s for good reason.
In 1780 the city of Louisville, Kentucky was founded officially becoming a part of the United States. It took only three years after the city’s founding for steady horse racing to be the norm in town, this racing of course wasn’t as sophisticated as modern tracks but it was competitive horse racing that took place on Market Street, according to sources.
It wasn’t long before an official track was built as the city’s first horse racing park, the Elm Tree Gardens opened in 1805. Despite being an abandoned site today the Gardens general area was along the Ohio River.
After racing left the River a new park was built not too far away on what is today Main and 16th in the downtown area. The Hope Distillery Course would provide the largest course in town for a number of years, meanwhile a collection of other tracks sprouted up during the time period.
There was no question that horse racing had a major audience in the bluegrass but for years there the audiences were fragmented all around the city and tracks of varying size. This fragmentation was conglomerated in 1833 with the Oakland Race Course, this track complete with some of the newest technology at the time would be located in old Louisville at Seventh and Magnolia by today’s geography.
The next track of note actually ventured to east Louisville, the Woodlawn Course, was located in St. Matthews. Despite closing in 1870 its legacy was resurrected in 1917 when the track’s trophy, the Woodlawn Vase would become the award given to winners of the Preakness Stakes, this is still the famed trophy given to these champions.
And to think this was all before Churchill Downs came on the scene.
Churchill Downs 
Image courtesy of Old-Print