Historic photo of Douglas Park
Historic photo of Douglas Park Race Track

Revisiting Douglas Park

Churchill Downs is not the only horse racing track to call Louisville home. There have been as many as six others. Many longtime residents can probably name two: Miles Park and Louisville Downs. Miles Park opened at the site of the old Kentucky State Fairgrounds in the West End in 1956. Initially a standard-bred harness racing track, it quickly switched to thoroughbred racing two years later, and actually had a couple of quarter-horse race meets before closing in 1978. Louisville was a standard-bred harness racing track on Polar Level Road that operated from 1966 to 1991.

Lesser-known tracks were Elm Tree Garden, Oaklawn Race Course and Woodlawn Race Course. Elm Tree Garden was Louisville’s first amusement park. Located on Shippingport Island, it opened in 1829. The park included a racetrack. It closed in 1873. Oaklawn Race Course was located at 7th and Magnolia streets. It opened in 1832 and closed in the mid-1850s. Woodlawn Race Course was located in far-eastern Jefferson County and operated from 1859 to 1870.

Douglas Park Racetrack had a longer history than any of those, existing from 1890 to 1958, although racing was only conducted during a small portion of that time. Located in the Beechmont neighborhood of south Louisville, Douglas Park Racetrack opened in 1890 as a standard-bred harness racing track. It was named for Colonel James Douglas, the original principal shareholder. Trotting races were held on the grounds until 1913, when the track changed to thoroughbred racing. Those races were only conducted there for five years. In 1918 the Kentucky Jockey Club purchased the 122 acres of Douglas Park and promptly discontinued racing. The Jockey Club began using the facility to stable and train horses for Churchill Downs.

Douglas Park Race Track

One of the more famous temporary residents at Douglas Park was the horse Donerail. At the Kentucky Derby of 1913, the barns at Churchill Downs were overcrowded, so the connections of Donerail had to stable their horse at Douglas Park. He was walked the three miles to Churchill Downs on the day of the race. Despite the walk, Donerail won that Derby, becoming – and remaining today – the biggest long shot to win in the history of the race.

The clubhouse and grandstand at Douglas Park were demolished in 1939. A series of damaging fires on the grounds started during the 1940s. In 1941 a fire destroyed one barn containing 11 stalls, but no horses were lost. Then, on New Year’s Eve in 1944, a large blaze destroyed another barn, killing a 77-year-old track attendant, nine racehorses and a track dog in the process. A smaller fire occurred in April of 1948.

Churchill Downs overhauled and improved the facility in 1950. In the same year, the Downs sold 21 acres of the property to the Archdiocese of Louisville. Later, a new church, St. John Vianney, was built on part of those 21 acres. Fire struck again in March of 1951.

This was only a prelude to a major fire that occurred on October 26, 1952. A large barn, reportedly one of the largest horse barns in the world, was destroyed. Sixty-eight thoroughbreds were killed.

That fire created quite a stir in the surrounding area. A fireman on the scene told the Courier-Journal the resulting crowd of onlookers was the largest he had ever seen at a Louisville fire.

“I lived at Fifth and Denmark,” recalled Dave Puckett, a teenager at the time. “From our neighborhood we could see a big red glow the night it burned. First thing next morning, we jumped on our bikes and went there. What a stinking mess, smoldering hay, dead horses.”

“I was 2 years old at the time and vividly remember the sound of the horse hooves hitting the pavement on Amherst Avenue as the horses fled the fire,” said Roger Burge. “Some of the fleeing horses were located as far away as National Turnpike.”

“I was 4 and our young family lived in a second-story apartment near the fire station on Wellington,” said Pat Kincaid, another resident of the area at the time. “I remember my dad taking my 2-year-old sister and me out of the windows to sit on the roof, much to my mother’s chagrin. He tried to explain to us what was happening while we watched the flames rise high in the sky and listened to the sounds of the chaos. I didn’t understand the scope of it at that age, but I sure remember those flames.”

“I was 10 years old and living in my grandmother’s house,” recalled Jack Clark. “We were sitting on the front porch. The sky was turning bright red and my grandmother, who was very religious, thought the world was coming to an end. Scared the devil out of me. I also remember seeing horses run down the middle of Second Street, some of them appearing to be badly hurt. A couple of them fell on the street and were screaming. It was very horrible. My dad went over there to see if he could help and came back dirty, saying that he helped the firemen hump the hoses. I remember that fire well.”

“I can remember the fire,” said William Stovall. “My mother and aunt took my cousin and me there the next morning. Horses were lying around along with thousands of feet of hose. Twenty years later, I became a firefighter. Go figure. I guess it made a impression on me.”

Donnie Hardin’s father was a teenager. He and his friends saw the smoke and rushed over on their bikes. They saw horses running around screaming. The scene haunted his father until he died.

A 24-year-old exercise boy later confessed to deliberately starting the fire while under the influence of alcohol and marijuana, and was sentenced to five years in prison. He also admitted to accidentally setting the fire in March of 1951.

Douglas Park commemorative plaque
Douglas Park Commemorative Plaque

As successive fires plagued Douglas Park, Churchill Downs continued to sell off parcels of the property. In 1954 three acres were sold to George Gould for the construction of offices, and the Archdiocese purchased seven more acres for $28,000. This latter plot would become the site of Holy Rosary Academy, now the Americana Community Center.

Finally, at a meeting of the board of directors of Churchill Downs on June 5, 1956, the decision was made to liquidate the rest of the property. The board hoped to obtain a total of $1,000,000 for capital improvements at the Downs. The last horses left the grounds in July of the next year. The track surface was actually scraped off and deposited on the Churchill Downs racetrack. By the spring of 1958, the remaining 78 acres of Douglas Park were cleared of the last 10 barns, and the land was leveled and sowed with grass.

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