Stupid Question ™
Aug. 24, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: What does “downs” mean in the name of horse and dog tracks, like “Dover Downs”?
A: In the English of around AD 900, a “down” was a hill. “Dune” is a close cousin.
(Our directional use of “down” comes from this; it originally meant “from the hill.”)
By the late 1200s, it referred generally to any open, elevated piece of land (and in fact, the “hill” meaning was already fading). Specifically, in its plural form “Downs,” it referred to the rolling, treeless uplands of South and Southeast England.
The Downs were mostly used as pasture land. When in the 1500s the British royalty got into horse racing, they turned to the Downs of Kent and Sussex.
Racing back then involved no regulations, no safety rails and no tracks—you just needed an open stretch of land, which the Downs provided in plenty.
However, “Downs” is not common in British horse track names and apparently never has been (though exercise fields for horses are frequently called “downs”; inevitably, there’s at least one horse farm called Upson Downs.)
It’s the US that has a mania for naming tracks “Downs”—even if they’re dog tracks or off-track betting parlors, and despite the fact that races are no longer held on open land anyway.
This US habit appears to have been inspired by Kentucky’s famous Churchill Downs racecourse, founded in 1875.
Churchill Downs, in turn, appears to have been inspired by Epsom Downs, probably England’s most famous racecourse and one of the few with “Downs” in the name.
King Henry VIII used to hold races on the 4-mile stretch of land then called the Banstead Downs. It was later known as Epsom for mineral springs in the area, and also “the Hill” for a large hill on which spectators would view the action.
In the old days, a horseshoe-shaped course was marked out with white sticks on the open, rolling meadow.
Horse racing was suppressed in England after the English Civil War, but when it was revived after the Restoration in 1660, Epsom is where the first race was held. Epsom was also famous for its “Derby Day,” also an inspiration to US horse racing.