The History of Kentucky Horse Racing

How the Kentucky Derby Museum offers all the best of horse racing tradition


By Elizabeth Scinta
Photos provided by the Kentucky Derby Museum


I hope you have the call to post ringing through your head while reading this feature because it was certainly on repeat in mine while I was writing it. Louisvillians are proud of our horse racing tradition, that is, the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, but do you know the full history and facts behind it? I thought I did until I visited the Kentucky Derby Museum. I learned so much about both events by walking around the two floors of exhibits and on the walking tour of Churchill Downs. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t learned about any of it in my 21 years of being a Louisvillian.

“The Kentucky Derby is iconic and the international event is important to our state’s history, culture and future. Our mission is to engage, educate and excite everyone about the extraordinary experience that is the Kentucky Derby. We are the storytellers of the Run for the Roses and the ‘preservers’ of its history,” explained Patrick Armstrong, the CEO and President of the Kentucky Derby Museum.

Not only does the Kentucky Derby Museum have two floors of interactive exhibits, but it is also the exclusive tour provider of Churchill Downs. On a tour, you can explore Millionaire’s Row or the Backside, two places a person might not usually go to. After the tour, make sure to check out the Kentucky Derby Museum’s signature movie, “The Greatest Race,” which is showcased in the museum. 

“Our signature movie, ‘The Greatest Race,’ is truly an experience that leaves viewers with a better understanding of why this race is world-renowned,” said Armstrong. “We have an incredible exhibit featured right now called ‘The Right to Ride,’ which showcases the incredible stories of female jockeys. Additionally, our permanent exhibit on African Americans in Thoroughbred Racing educates guests on the important contributions African Americans have had on the sport of racing. Our D. Wayne Lukas exhibit is an impressive display of one of the greatest trainers of all time.”

Here’s another Derby fact you might not know. The Kentucky Derby Museum is an entirely separate nonprofit organization from Churchill Downs. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the Kentucky Derby Museum could not host its 34th annual Kentucky Derby Museum Gala, its primary fundraiser. They do anticipate continuing the tradition in 2021. 

You can help support the Kentucky Derby Museum by visiting and sharing your experience. “Come out and see us! Many people don’t realize what a gem they have right in their backyard. The Kentucky Derby Museum is the only way to take a tour of historic Churchill Downs Racetrack,” explained Armstrong. “Plus, there are hidden treasures inside the museum to discover. Everyone is spread out and extra safety measures are in place. Plus, our gift shop and online store at derbymuseumstore.com are the perfect way to support local and find a uniquely Kentucky gift.”

Like everything else, the Kentucky Derby Museum has had to alter how they normally do business. They added extra safety precautions to the tour and exhibits in the museum to ensure they can stay open, as closing for the first three months of the pandemic was extremely difficult for them, explained Armstrong. “We have adapted tours, offer guests a touchscreen stylus to interact with exhibits instead of using their hands and offer curbside pickup for gift shop orders,” said Armstrong.

The Kentucky Derby Museum is great for learning more about the Derby, but it’s also a great place to host events, especially weddings! Embrace Kentucky’s horse racing culture by hosting your rehearsal dinner, reception, ceremony or all three at the Kentucky Derby Museum. “Our venue spaces provide the perfect blend of modern amenities and Kentucky tradition. Indoor and covered outdoor spaces offer versatile layout options that can be tailored to fit your unique style, with a rich array of add-on experiences. This includes a walking tour of Churchill Downs and an appearance by the Official Derby Bugler to make your wedding, rehearsal dinner or special event as memorable for your guests as it is for you,” Armstrong said.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Kentucky Derby Museum has created a new wedding package for those still wanting to have their weddings, just at a smaller capacity. “They’re wanting an intimate number and event, so our events team is creating a package that will feature the ceremony and the reception in the same place. They’ve already done a couple of these. Brides are looking for something where they don’t have to start from scratch and plan again, they can start out planning a smaller wedding,” explained Rachel Collier, the Director of Communications at the Kentucky Derby Museum. 

The events team has helped each wedding party figure out how to best adapt their day to fit the guidelines or reschedule for the following year. Typically, the museum will host close to 340 events, but this year, there will be about 30 weddings. Interested in having your wedding at the Kentucky Derby Museum? Contact Amie Milby, the Director of Sales and Events, at 502.992.5903 or AMilby@DerbyMuseum.org.

Kentucky Derby Museum
704 Central Avenue
Louisville, KY 40208