How to Build a Horse Racing Track

On a trip to Europe during the years 1872 to 1873, a 26-year-old colonel from Kentucky, M. Lewis Clark, visited multiple horse racing facilities in England and France. He also met with European horse racing leaders, including Vicompte Darn, French Jockey Club vice president, and Admiral Rous of England. Clark wanted to create a jockey club in Louisville, for horse racing. He returned home and created the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association in 1874.

After selling subscriptions for $100 each to 320 people, he leased 80 acres of land from his uncles, John and Henry Churchill. Clark opened the famous Churchill Downs horse track, along with a grandstand, a porter’s lodge, a clubhouse, and six stables, in 1875. Nearly 20 years later, the Louisville Jockey Club appointed a new president, William F. Schulte, who constructed a grandstand featuring the beautiful twin spires that are the symbols of the Kentucky Derby. In 1903, after 28 years in business, Churchill Downs finally turned a profit.

If you’ve ever seen the awesome Churchill Downs track – layout, you might have wondered what goes into designing a racing mecca for events like the Kentucky Derby. Let’s take a gander into what goes into designing the perfect horse track. Who knows: Someday, after you’ve made a fortune betting on horses, you can open a track of your own.

Designing the Track

Tracks are made of either turf or all-weather material. Racing centers with turf tracks can host both flat races and jump races, where horses jump over hurdles and fences. A turf track needs time to recover after a big race, so track owners can’t run as many races on the track. All-weather track costs 50 percent more to install, so it’s a big upfront investment, and it’s only good for flat racing. The good thing about all-weather track is that horses can race year-round, which gives owners more chances to earn money.

In addition to choosing the right material, track designers have to pick a layout for the course. For variety, tracks are designed with both flat stretches and circular elements. On a smaller piece of land, track owners trace multiple tracks onto one location and block off unused portions for different races. At other racing centers, owners lay out multiple tracks on different spots of land. Churchill Downs has both its famous dirt track and the Matt Winn Turf Track.


People don’t just go to the track to place bets. They want the entire race day experience. According to Paul Roberts, a racetrack architectural consultant from London, the three most attractive racetracks in the U.S. — Del Mar, Keeneland, and Saratoga — capture the highest attendance figures.

Racing centers have to cater to a wide range of fans, including those who want to get in and place $2 bets and those who want an upscale, luxury experience. In addition to building a grandstand that offers a great view, racetracks need a place for ticket collection and stables for horses. Most tracks also need a places for food and drink vendors and maybe a restaurant and bar for those who want a break during race day. For upscale members, they’ll need a member’s club and a hospitality building, which will provide entertainment while still giving members a view of the track.

Location, Location, Location

Long before Churchill Downs came to be, Louisville had a rich history of horse racing. As early as 1783, history records that men gathered in downtown Louisville near Market Street and raced their horses down the busy thoroughfare. After taking flak from “safety-minded” citizens, they moved their races to Shippingport Island, a spot of land in the Ohio River. In 1827, they built a new track called the Hope Distillery Course along with several private tracks, and later they opened two tracks, the Oakland Race Course and the Woodlawn Course (Preakness winners still get the Woodlawn Vase).

Today, fans from all over the world make pilgrimages to the Kentucky Derby, but Churchill Downs wouldn’t have gained worldwide fame without the support of local fans. It’s not only about the land and the buildings; you need an army of racing fans.

Maybe someday, like Colonel Clark before you, you’ll open up a track of your own. Until then, keep betting on those ponies, drinking mint juleps, and hoping for fortune and glory.