The World’s Championship Horse Show, the world’s richest and most prestigious horse show, attracts spectators and competitors from across the world and includes over 2,000 horses competing for more than $1.5 million in awards. However, when it began in 1902 at Churchill Downs, horses traveled to the show on foot and by train and winners received only a sterling silver trophy.
Before Louisville was picked to become the permanent site of the Kentucky State Fair in 1906, the fair was held in Owensboro and Lexington. Louisville was central to the prominent Saddlebred breeding programs in Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee and where the Registry was located.
Construction for an amphitheater at the then-named State Fairgrounds began in 1906; and until it was finished in 1908, the fair and horse show was held at Churchill Downs. In 1908, the $100,000 amphitheater was finished and for the first time, in 1909, the show was held at night under lights and automobiles filled the parking lot.
Some of the greatest horses in the history of the breed showed in the first ten years of the fair – Rex Peavine, Bourbon King, Poetry Of Motion, Edna May, and Hazel Dawn. Roadster Stakes were held from the beginning in 1902 and the first Yearling and Weanling Stakes were held in 1910. There were no time constraints on the show and championships lasting an hour or more were common. There were also no American Saddlebred Horse Association rules and the conduct of the classes was up to the judges.
As the fair came into its second decade in 1913, more classes were added and businesses and individuals began to sponsor trophies and monetary awards. In 1915, the show came under the control of the Agricultural Board appointed by the Governor of Kentucky.
The first $10,000 Five-Gaited World’s Grand Championship, which would forever be the high point of the show, began in 1917 with the victory of Easter Cloud. Horses from all over the country started coming to Louisville. They started coming from New York, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, and even as far as Texas and California. Owners would talk to each other to plan to share boxcars that were divided into box stalls for the long journey.
The third decade of the show began in 1923. Boxcar and boxcar unloaded show horse royalty – many having traveled a great distance back to the birthplace of the Kentucky Saddler ready to challenge the Kentucky-born “hotshots” on their own turf.
The 1930s brought the first mention of the three and five-gaited ponies. Several innovations were made for the 1933 fair. The platform in the center of the ring was removed and only the judges, ring marshal, and horses being shown were allowed in the ring. A special box was constructed for the judges. Another change was the lining up of the entrants lengthwise when unsaddled instead of side by side, which gave spectators a view of each entrant and permitting them to more clearly follow the judge as he inspected each horse.
Due to the publicity generated for the breed by the World’s Championship Horse Show, foreign interest in the Saddlebred increased. Horses were exported to South America, Australia, New Zealand, England Ireland, Germany, The Netherlands, Switzerland, and more importantly South Africa, which developed a superlative breeding program that would contribute significantly to the breed of the future.
The fourth decade brought the establishment of the Three-Gaited and Fine Harness World’s Grand Championships in 1936. The first Five-Gaited Pony Stake was held in 1937, coinciding with the Great Flood. Four feet of Ohio River water stood in the ring and extensive repairs had to be made throughout the Fairgrounds in order to have the horse show. This was also the first year for Hackney horse and pony classes, as well as the Ladies’ Stake Five-Gaited, Three-Gaited, and Fine Harness Divisions.
In the 1940s the Thoroughbred industry came to the aid of the Kentucky State Fair Horse Show. In 1941 the United States entered World War II. Because of advance nominations and payments, the ASHA Futurity was held at the Shelby County Fair in Shelbyville in 1942. The Kentucky State Fairgrounds were being used for “war production purposes” and no show was held.
Colonel Matt J. Winn offered the use of Churchill Downs free of charge for a benefit show in 1943. It was called the Kentucky State Horse Show and all proceeds went to disabled soldiers at the Nichols General Hospital. War bonds were given as prizes rather than the customary silver trophies. General admission was 75 cents and 25 cents to all members of the armed forces.
The fair was held at Churchill Downs through 1945 and in 1946 the show was at the State Fairgrounds Race Track. The show returned to the amphitheater in 1947 for the first time since the beginning of the war.
The 1950s saw the construction of the new Kentucky State Fairgrounds and in 1956 the first performance of the World’s Championship Horse Show was held in Freedom Hall. CH Dream Waltz was the first horse to win the Five-Gaited World’s Grand Championship in the new $16,000,000 arena.
The 1960s brought to the fair the services of two dedicated men, William Munford and Joseph Stopher, who served longer in their capacities than anyone before them. As a member of the Kentucky State Fair Board from 1968-1996, Stopher was the board member in charge of the horse show. Munford began helping in various capacities in the 1960s and began his 27-year tenure as manager of the horse show in 1972. Because of their efforts, the World’s Championship Horse Show has reached the pinnacle at which it stands today.
Entries became more diverse in the 1970s with many of the large farms gone. More horses were being boarded out with more trainers and Kentucky trainers often had horses for owners from far-flung states. People would lease stalls during the show season and ship their horses from other states to take part in the Kentucky circuit.
During the early years of the fair, a separate program was produced for each day of the show, small enough to fold and put in your pocket. It eventually grew to magazine size to include the entire event. When action photography progressed, the program grew to nearly an inch thick.
More recent decades have seen changes as well. The seating areas and the show arena were reconfigured to better accommodate other sporting events. The ring floor was lowered to make more room for seating and the famous entrance ramp came into being. Computers now take up lap space, not entire buildings, and are used in center ring to configure judges’ scores and results available to print right away.
In 2023, the World's Championship Horse Show will celebrate its 120th year.