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Discover the Kentucky Derby’s Lincoln County roots 

We think of the nexus of Kentucky horse racing as being Louisville and Lexington. But could it have been Lincoln County, 97 miles from Churchill Downs and 45 miles from Keeneland Race Course? 

As Churchill Downs celebrates its 150th Derby on May 4 and Keeneland its 100th Blue Grass Stakes on April 6, it’s a great time to learn about a couple of horse tracks that decades earlier likely helped set the stage for Kentucky and American racing. That brings us to the William Whitley House Historic Site, also known as Sportsman’s Hill. 

Back in the late 1700s, early Kentucky settler William Whitley constructed his Sportsman’s Hill race course one hill over from his Sportsman’s Hill residence between Crab Orchard and Stanford in Lincoln County. Though it’s impossible to document such things with 100% accuracy, a case can be made that Whitley built the first clay and first circular racetrack west of, as well as the first where the horses ran counter-clockwise the Alleghenies. 

History suggests that the Virginia-born Whitley demonstrated his hatred for the British by running his horses counterclockwise on dirt—the opposite of the English style of racing clockwise on grass. That’s why dirt racing is the dominant surface in American racing, and virtually every track races counterclockwise today. 

“That’s why we do track and field that way, NASCAR and everything in the United States is done that way because of William Whitley,” says Jane Vanhook, the William Whitley House park manager and president of the Lincoln County Historical Society “And the Lexington Legends baseball team just changed their name to the Counter Clocks.” 

Whitley also could have created the precursor of a Kentucky Derby staple: the infield. His racetrack ringed the bottom of a hill with racegoers watching from the top. Today, the land that would have been the race course is covered in wildflowers, with a trail that goes to the top of the hill. 

“William Whitley was big with horses,” Vanhook says. “Of course, the horse was such a big commodity. If you had a horse, you could do just about anything in Kentucky at that time. He enjoyed racing, and that was probably one of the few social events they got to enjoy. I’m sure in 1775 (when Whitley planted corn and built a cabin to claim a military land grant) in the spring, when he noticed that hill across from his house, he thought, ‘That would be a great racetrack there.’ It was first documented in 1788 for him to actually have a horse race there, (though) I’m sure he had races there before.” 

The Crab Orchard Derby 

Two miles away atop another hill, Spring Hill Race Course first started racing in 1817, according to newspaper articles in the late 19th century, which credited it as the first track on which a regulated race was run in Kentucky. The Crab Orchard Derby became the region’s most celebrated race. 

Benefitting from the mineral springs in the area, Spring Hill Race Course flourished after being bought by noted turfman Col. Henry Farris in 1936. The Louisville Courier-Journal in an 1897 retrospective described the summer-resort area, including the fabulous Crab Orchard Springs Hotel and the race course, as becoming “about the sportiest places outside of New Orleans in the entire South, or perhaps, in America” until the Civil War.  

The hotel burned down in 1871 and the race track ultimately became a training center for racehorses, according to news accounts. 

Meanwhile, Churchill Downs opened in 1875 and held the first Kentucky Derby. 

“Col. (Jack) Chinn, who actually wrote the Kentucky horse-racing regulations, stated that if it had not been for the Civil War, the Kentucky Derby would have been held in Crab Orchard, because most of your jockeys and trainers were already there and were already racing in Crab Orchard,” Vanhook says. “It was a big tourist icon at the time because of the health benefits from the magnesium in the water there. Spring Hill became more active (than Sportsman’s Hill) because William decided not to have as many races. I’ve heard a couple things: He found a nail in his horse’s hoof that had been put there, and also I’ve heard his jockey threw a race to let another horse win.” 

Exploring today 

Today, the Whitley House and surrounding property are managed by Lincoln County Fiscal Court, while the Spring Hill property is privately owned. The county took ownership of the historic site, located northwest of Crab Orchard, from the state in 2019. 

Nearby Stanford is the second-oldest permanent settlement in Kentucky. Its Main Street is part of what was the 200-mile Wilderness Road blazed by Daniel Boone. The Wilderness Road  celebrates its 250th year in 2025.  

Celebrate Derby Day for a cause: The nonprofit William Whitley House Endowment is staging a Derby Day brunch fundraiser in conjunction with the Stanford Inn, from 11 a.m.–1 p.m. on May 4. Tickets to the catered event are $100 and can be purchased through

Destination details 

William Whitley House Historic Site: 625 William Whitley Road, Stanford, KY, (606) 355-2881.  

Open 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays April 25–October 26. Email Park Manager Jane Vanhook at to schedule special tours earlier in the week or during the offseason. The park grounds—open year-round during daylight hours—include walking trails and picnic shelters that can be reserved. Nearby Cedar Creek Lake provides excellent bass fishing. 

For overnight stays: Stanford Inn at Wilderness Road, 207 West Main St., Stanford, (606) 879-0555. The downtown inn offers boutique hotel rooms and historic cottages. 

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