Throughout the storied history of sports in the city of Louisville one man whose name is often ignored nowadays has his contributions come up so frequently.
A man named Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., like the explorers he’s named after Clark founded new territory on his own, in his case it was in the form of a horse racing track with nods to European culture Churchill Down was built under the tutelage and work of Clark.
Named after his mother and her side of the family Churchill Downs began as a plot of land that was inherited by Clark’s aunt and cousins, who he lived with after his mother’s untimely passing.
After visiting and observing Europe twice, Clark with the help of his family and an organization called the Louisville Jockey Club which provided finances developed the track that has become so synonymous with American horse racing.
Then in 1875, Clark’s saw the track host the first Kentucky Derby. Opening day for the Downs featured four races the first of which gave a victory to Bonaventure.
It wasn’t until later that day though, that around 10,000 people in attendance saw Aristides win the first Kentucky Derby with jockey Oliver Lewis.
Of course, a major horse racing event in Kentucky was no stretch as the first race track in Kentucky was built in Lexington in 1789.
What Churchill Downs had for it was a visionary like Clark, a man who took successful aspects from racetracks in England, France, Kentucky- and everywhere in between to create a track with staying power- and more than that, a man who understood how to develop a landmark race.
All though, those early Derby founders didn’t realize what the Kentucky derby would become, the financial and cultural strategies are still what kept it in place for all these years. And, I suppose it’s that that makes Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. and Churchill Downs sports legends of the Ville.
Image courtesy of Churchill Downs
A collection of interviews regarding the Derby through the years