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Book Review

coverChurchill Downs: America's Most Historic Racetrack
By Kimberly Gatto
History Press, March 2010, 144 pages paperback

Churchill Downs in Louisville is an internationally recognized landmark of American horse racing. Home of the Kentucky Derby since the famous race's inception in 1875, the Twin Spires serve as a reminder to every participant in the sport of the ultimate goal: to breed, own, train, ride, or just have a winning bet on a horse that wears the garland of roses on the first Saturday in May. In her latest book, popular equestrian author Kimberly Gatto writes about the interesting and tumultuous history of the legendary racing facility.

Gatto starts off with the early history of racing in Kentucky, before Churchill and Keeneland, covering the 4-mile-heats and match races that were popular in those days. Initially contested over city streets, they were later moved to purpose-built tracks such as Oakland and Woodlawn for the safety of spectators and participants. It is no surprise that Kentucky was already a hotbed of Thoroughbred racing and breeding, which set the stage for Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr.'s big gamble. He founded the Louisville Jockey Club and the track that would eventually be called Churchill Downs, using a trip to England for inspiration.

Rather than continue with the 4 mile heats, Clark used the success of the Epsom Derby, the Epsom Oaks, and the St. Leger as his inspiration to bring the idea of classic races, relatively short races for 3-year-olds, home to America. Today they still run the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks, while his version of the St. Leger, the Clark Stakes, is now the Clark Handicap and allows older horses. Although they were originally run at a distance of 12-furlongs, the same as the English originals, the Derby and Oaks distances were eventually shortened due to pressure from horsemen who threatened to boycott the race. As well, Gatto did not forget to pay tribute to an often-forgotten part of racing history, the African-American jockeys and trainers who dominated the sport in the early years of the Kentucky Derby.

Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby may not be around today if not for Colonel Matt Winn, who saved the track from bankruptcy and then worked to promote the track and the race to national prominence, even during the Depression and through wartime travel restrictions. Parimutuel wagering had been introduced by Clark and was quickly removed after protests from local bookmakers, but when the city of Louisville banned bookmaking, the quick-thinking Winn took the machines out of storage and back into service. He also dropped the minimum bet from $5 to $2 to encourage participation from more people, a tradition which, like the Derby, continues to this day.

In the ensuing chapters, Gatto runs through the famous races that made each decade of Churchill Downs special. Triple Crown winners got special recognition, as expected, as well as certain winners of the Kentucky Oaks and other stakes races. She also shows which innovations were introduced, such as the automatic starting gate, film patrol, and live television coverage. The 1960's saw the opening of the Kentucky Derby Museum and the first and only disqualification in Derby history, when Dancer's Image was taken down after failing a drug test for bute which was later made legal. The 1970's saw the last three Triple Crown winners, including Secretariat's Derby in a track record 1:59.40 which still stands, as well as the centennial running in 1974 with over 163,000 fans in attendance. The 1980's saw two fillies, Genuine Risk and Winning Colors, wear the famous roses, but also saw the biggest renovation in the track's history, which included the installation of a new paddock, a new home for the Kentucky Derby Museum, and the Matt Winn Turf Course. The latter set the stage for 6 runnings of the Breeders' Cup World Championships, a record that will be extended to 7 this year. The final chapter, covering the new millennium, deals with such events as the retirement of Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day, the frustration of the Triple Crown near-misses of War Emblem, Funny Cide, and Smarty Jones, but more importantly, the tragedies of 2006 Derby winner Barbaro and 2008 runner-up Eight Belles.

Gatto includes 6 appendices, listing Churchill Downs' track presidents since 1875, track records, winners of the Derby, Oaks, and Clark, and the winners of every Breeders' Cup race run at the track. The text is interspersed with many black-and-white photos, some of memorabilia from the owner's personal collection such as Derby programs, admission tickets, and betting tickets, and of the famous horses and people that form an integral part of Churchill Downs history. A color section is included in the center of the book with 32 photographs. Locally based photographers Allison Pareis and Ryan Armbrust supplied many of the excellent photographs included in this book.

Fans of American racing history will thoroughly enjoy Gatto's work, an entertaining and informative account of the history of undoubtedly "America's Most Historic Racetrack", and the race that gave it that title. The reader will understand what makes Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby special, and appreciate that if not for Colonels Meriwether Lewis Clark and Matt Winn, we may not be celebrating the 136th running of the Derby or the 7th time as Breeders' Cup host. A portion of the proceeds from the book will go to Old Friends Equine, a Kentucky-based retirement farm for Thoroughbreds.

Churchill Downs: America's Most Historic Racetrack has a list price of $19.99 and can be purchased for $14.39 from

Rating:     5/5

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