It’s a party, a tradition, a place for the wild and zany- an atmosphere where anything can happen, and sometimes does! In 2013 the Kentucky Derby Museum will open an exhibit dedicated to the Infield at Churchill Downs. This grassy oasis under the shadow of the spires has held a unique place in Kentucky's history including a relationship with the Kentucky State Fair.
Infield parties have long been a part of the Churchill Downs tradition, especially in relation to the Kentucky Derby, but some of the most elaborate infield activities ever produced are actually associated with another longstanding resident of the Bluegrass – the Kentucky State Fair. Even though the Fair now permanently resides at the Kentucky Fair & Exposition Center just a few miles down Central Avenue in Louisville, the Kentucky State Fair has been held at Churchill Downs on five separate occasions during its first 100 years of existence. The legendary racetrack was not only a key factor in originally bringing the Fair to Louisville, but it was also crucial to the Fair’s continuation – instead of cancellation – during World War II.
When Louisville won the bid to host the first Kentucky State Fair in 1902, the city’s only location suitable for handling the anticipated crowds and needed exhibit space was Churchill Downs. The racetrack proudly opened its gates for the first Fair and welcomed 75,000 fairgoers during the six-day event. Appropriately, several horse shows were among the featured events, as well as steam auto races and the head-on collision of two freight trains.
Despite the Kentucky State Fair’s inaugural success in Louisville, it moved to Owensboro the next year and then on to Lexington as bidding wars between cities continued. In 1906, organizers decidedly moved the event back to Louisville, this time permanently. The Kentucky State Fair returned to Churchill Downs in 1906 and 1907 to allow time for the first permanent State Fairgrounds to be constructed on a site in western Louisville.
Many years quietly passed after Churchill Downs first helped the Kentucky State Fair get established; however, the racetrack’s connection to the Fair was not over yet.
As America joined the Allied Forces in World War II, Kentucky industry retooled to support the war effort. The State Fairgrounds was transformed into an expanded operation of a Louisville-based manufacturer, Tube Turns, to produce aircraft parts and shells, and was also used as one of sixteen rubber collection centers in the country. In short, the Fairgrounds property was temporarily out of service and the Kentucky State Fair was accordingly cancelled in 1942 and 1943.
Even though the Fairgrounds continued as a major defense site for the remainder of the war, all was not lost for the Fair itself. In 1944, Colonel Matt Winn, the president and executive manager of Churchill Downs, reinstated the two organizations’ original ties and offered the infield of the famous racetrack for the Fair’s use. So twice more – in 1944 and 1945 – Churchill Downs hosted the annual state fair, providing Kentucky residents with one of the few large-scale recreational opportunities of the time.
Research courtesy of Kentucky State Fair Board
See the Infield Exhibit April 9- December 31, 2013