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Famous American racecourses

Updated on December 12, 2013

Churchill Downs

In many ways it is to American racing what Epsom is to English racing and Longchamp is to the French Turf, but to the rest of the world, it is the home of the Kentucky Derby. Situated in the heart of the Blue Grass Country, it is a fast, oval, course, completely flat with a smooth level dirt surface.

The Kentucky Derby was first run over the course in l875—then one and a quarter miles (2,000 metres). Though in its long career the race has been contested over one and a half miles (2,400 metres), it finally settled at its present distance of one and a quarter miles in 1896.

Horses run in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs
Horses run in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs

FACT

The inaugural Kentucky Derby was run in 1875 and was won by Aristides

The first winner was Aristides, and the first horse foaled outside- the United States to triumph was the British horse Omar Khayyan in l9l7—the year that another British-bred horse, Hourless, won the Belmont Stakes.

The great Man O'War did not run in the Kentucky Derby, but his son, War Admiral, won the race in 1937 on his way to landing the Triple Crown. Since its inauguration, the race has been dominated by Kentucky-bred horses, though in recent years this monopoly has been dented on more than one occasion.

Swaps (1955) was the first Californian-bred horse to win it, beating the locally-bred favourite that year, Nashua, In 1964 Northern Dancer brought the spotlight on the Canadian horse, winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.

Belmont Park

Named after August Belmont, a renowned banker and racehorse owner, Belmont Park is one-third of the racing circuit administered by the New York Racing Association, along with Aqueduct and Saratoga Park.

The course opened in 1905, but in 1912 New York racing was closed by the anti-betting legislation, and eventually led to the outlawing of bookmakers. Shortly afterwards tracks were permitted to install Pari-mutuels - and racing restarted in 1913.

And they're off: The starting gate at Belmont Park
And they're off: The starting gate at Belmont Park

FACT

The winner of the first Belmont Stakes was Ruthless in 1867

Chief event is the Belmont Stakes, run in early June, and senior of the three United States classics for colts. The 'Belmont’ was tirst run in 1867 (winner, Ruthless) at Jerome Park, now closed, then at Morris Park from 1890 (winner, Burlington).

Tanya won the first running at Belmont Park in 1905, The race has been contested over various distances, starting at one mile five furlongs (2,600 metres) from 1867 to 1873 until the present one-and-a-half mile (2,400 metres) distance was established in 1926 (winner, Crusader).

The first British-bred winner was Saxon in 1874, the immortal Man O’War won it in 1920. Also held here is the Coaching Club American Oaks. This race is to three-year-old fillies what the ‘Belmont’ is for colts, and with the Acorn Stakes and the Mother Goose, makes up the ‘ladies’ Triple Crown.

Pimlico

Situated at Baltimore in the East Coast state of Maryland, it is one of the oldest courses in the United States and is the home of the Preakness Stakes, first run there in 1873 (when the winner was Survivor).

The Preakness has had a chequered career, involving changes of distance, a four-year abandonment and some alterations in venue. It was run at Pimlico until 1889 (winner Buddhist) during which time the distance had been reduced to one and a quarter miles from one and a half miles, and was then abandoned until 1893.

In 1894, the race was revived at Gravesend, New York, when the winner was Assignee. Then in 1909, the Preakness returned to Pimlico as a mile race and the laurels went to Effendi and its present distance of nine and a half furlongs (1,900 metres) was adopted in 1925, when the race was won by Coventry.

Many great American horses have won the Preakness. The legendary Man O'War, the flying Triple Crown winner Citation, Bold Ruler, Native Dancer, and Canada's Northern Dancer, who sired Nijinsky, The 1957 winner, Bold Ruler, was voted Horse of the Year at three, and, after winning 23 races from 33 starts, went on to prove himself a great stallion. Although by the Nearco horse Nasrullah, Bold Ruler was out of the American mare Miss Disco.

Aqueduct

Like Belmont Park and Saratoga Park, Aqueduct is administered by the New York Racing Association and attracts nearly four and a half million racegoers each year. It has a vast grandstand which runs parallel to the home straight, and the running surface is dirt with wide, even turns. There is an oval-shaped jump course inside which has three fences on each straight.

Many important races are run at Aqueduct, but perhaps the best known are the Suburban Handicap and the Brooklyn Handicap, both run in July and framed for three-year-olds and upwards. The ‘Suburban' is run over one mile and three furlongs (2,200 metres), and the ‘Br00k1yn' over one and a quarter miles (2,000 metres).

Laurel

This course forms part of the Eastern American racing circuit and is situated between Washington, D.C., and the city of Baltimore. lt is the United States principal grass track and the home of the Washington International invitation race, first run in 1952. This race was the brainchild of John Schapiro, who travels the major racing centres of the world promoting the race and looking for horses to invite, These usually go out to winners of Group I Pattern races in Europe, the Emperors Cup in Japan or the State Cup races in Australia.

The Australian horse, Sailor’s Guide, won the 'Laurel', in 1958, after the disqualification of the English-bred Tudor Era. Hawaii, who originated from South Africa, but was in training in the United States at the time, was runner-up in 1969 to the English victor, Karabas. Russian horses have also made honourable trips to Maryland. Two of that country’s greatest racehorses, Zabeg and Anilin, measured up well to top-class international form.

ln 1980 Zabeg was third to the U.S. horses Bald Eagle and Hormonizing and finished fourth in the following two years. Anilin, who won 22 races from 28 starts in six countries, was third in 1964 to top American stakes winner Kelso, and Gun Bow, and in 1966 Anilin, three times winner of the Grosser Preis von Europa, finished second to Behistoun.

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