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Triple Crown tracks information

Kentucky Derby: Churchill Downs

Track: Churchill Downs Louisville, KY
Distance: 1 1/4 miles
Purse: $1 million
Record: 1:59 2/5 (Secretariat, 1973)

There's no way possible that John and Henry Churchill could have envisioned that their family name would go down in infamy back in 1874. All they did was unload a piece of land that was part of Kentucky's declining stock farms to Col. M. Lewis Clark. Only a year after this acquisition, Clark's brand-new Louisville Jockey Club served as host to an estimated 10,000 spectators for the first Kentucky Derby on May 17, 1875, when Aristides ran to glory.

Twin Spires
The view from the first turn at Churchill Downs during the 1999 Kentucky Derby.

It wasn't until the Louisville Commercial newspaper used the name "Churchill Downs" on a recap of the ninth Derby that the historic track got its namesake. Churchill, taken from Clark's uncles' name who sold him the land, and Downs, from an English-term for an expanse of grassy upland used for grazing and racing. It's been the name associated with the place to be on the first Saturday in May ever since.

Clark, who studied racing in Europe for two years before settling in Louisville, wisely fashioned his club after the great races of England. He modeled the Clark Handicap after the English St. Leger, the Kentucky Oaks after the Epsom Oaks for three-year-old fillies and the Kentucky Derby after the Epsom (or English) Derby. At first the Derby was set at one mile 880 yards compared to the Epsom's one mile 881 yards, but was later changed to the 1 mile distance that remains today.

Over the past century and a quarter, Churchill Downs has seen much more than one glorious week of racing in the spring. It boasts a long history of steeplechase racing, and has hosted several large-scale events such as State Fairs, popular musical greats and several off-season banquets and formal dinners in the Eclipse Dining Room, the Paddock Pavilion and in the infield. Locals also take great pride in boasting of how their favorite son, Muhammad Ali, used to jog the mile strip in the early '60s while in training.

For the average racing enthusiast, the infield of Churchill Downs is sacred land. Since the tracks' inception, it's served as a place for thousands of racing fans to enjoy themselves on race day. The manicured grounds are easily accessible via one of several tunnels constructed under the track in 1937 and are used to not only get an up-close view of the thoroughbreds but also for picnics, access to endless concession and souvenir booths.

The non-stop expansion and ability to adapt with the times has kept Churchill Downs' standing as horse racing's Mecca in the United States and is the reason the Kentucky Derby remains the country's oldest, continuously held race.

Preakness Stakes: Pimlico

Track: Pimlico Baltimore, MD
Distance: 1 3/16 miles
Purse: $1 million
Record: 1:53 2/5 (Louis Quatorze, 1996; Tanks's Prospect, 1985)

Could there have been a more appropriately named three-year-old to win the first Preakness at Pimlico in 1873? Survivor.

Pimlico, America's second oldest track behind Saratoga (opened in 1864), is celebrating its 130th anniversary year this season. Pimlico, which opened in 1870, has earned its patina of age, weathering small and major wars, recessions, depressions-including the Great One of the 1930's-fires and storms as well as the all-leveling destruction of passing time.

More than 50 years ago when Alfred G. Vanderbilt was young and president of the Maryland Jockey Club, he made a pertinent observation:

"Pimlico is more than a dirt track bounded by four streets. It is an accepted American institution, devoted to the best interests of a great sport, graced by time, respected for its honorable past."

A half century later, Pimlico, with another youthful president, Joseph A. De Francis, has taken on more stature-indeed it has become a national treasure.

Despite its one hundred and thirty years-America was less than 100 years old when the track opened-Pimlico is marked by a reassuring vitality. The old track is not living in the past, although the memories and the names of old swirl around in a delightful backdrop.

Pimlico presently remains squarely fixed in the midst of the ongoing Thoroughbred story. The Pimlico Special, revived in 1988, has been instantly restored to its glory days as an American classic race. Like old times, Cigar, the 1995 winner of the Pimlico Special, was named Horse of the Year.

The Preakness is involved in its own revival. The past ten runnings have attracted nearly 100,000 people each year to Old Hilltop.

Once again, there is a stirring in the nation's barns as the three-year-olds move toward their engagements in the time-honored rite known as the Triple Crown. Pimlico, a blend of the old and the new, is ready again to play its role in determining the latest champion.

Some years ago, Pimlico employed a promotional slogan-"Pimlico-a place for old friends and young horses."

It's time again for the old friends to assemble and of course those entertaining, if unpredictable, young horses.

Belmont Stakes: Belmont Race Track

Track Belmont Park, Elmont, NY
Distance: 1 1/2 miles
Purse: $1 million
Record: 2:24 (Secretariat, 1973)

Just like anything in New York, Belmont Park has to be bigger.

After the pageantry of the Kentucky Derby and magic of the Preakness Stakes, the Triple Crown shifts to Elmont, N.Y., for its final leg. There, the Belmont Stakes challenges horses in a much different way on "The Championship Park," just outside New York City.

The 1 1/2-mile course is a full quarter-mile longer than the first two races, thus it has often proved too challenging for champions seeking to sweep the three legs.

Of the 26 horses that came to New York's course seeking Triple Crown infamy, 15 were denied at Belmont. A record 85,818 packed the Elmont track last year looking to witness history, but Charismatic became the third horse in three years to be defeated in its quest for the Triple Crown.

While Charismatic was a close third, Belmont's most memorable race was also its most lopsided. In 1973, Secretariat cruised to the winner's circle as a Triple Crown champion with a 31-length victory in a still-standing course record 2:24.

Belmont Park opened its doors on May 4, 1905 when it took over as host of the oldest of the three Triple Crown races. The Stakes' inaugural run was in 1867 at Jerome Park Racecourse. On a heavy track, Ruthless won the four-horse race in 3 minutes, 4 seconds.

The Wright Brothers supervised an international aerial tournament before 150,000 people at Belmont Park on October 30, 1910. Belmont was also the site of the first American airmail service (1918) between New York and Washington, D.C.

In 1956, Belmont Park underwent a multi-million dollar facelift with emphasis on transportation and parking. In 1963, after 60 years, Belmont was forced to close due to structural deterioration. The "new" Belmont Park reopened on May 20, 1968.

The first year the park re-opened, once again the Belmont deflated a Derby-Preakness winner. Stage Door Johnny stole Forward Pass' thunder in the '68 Triple Crown.

In 1997, the Belmont Stakes changed the traditional anthem of the event. Instead of the horses lining up to the theme, "Shadows of New York," the horses make their way to the starting gate to "New York, New York."

Just in case you didn't know where you were.