latonia

Latonia

In 1882, The Latonia Agricultural and Stock Association had purchased 109 acres from the James Taylor estate in order to open a Thoroughbred horse racing facility.  A year later, the facility opened for business. The Latonia Race Track quickly became a national destination, offering some of the best purses, which drew the top horses, owners and jockeys. Its most famous stakes race was the Latonia Derby.

Initially run as the “Hindoo Stakes ” in honor of the great Kentucky-bred champion Hindoo, the inaugural 1883 race was won by Kentucky Derby winner Leonatus. The Latonia Derby ran annually from 1883 through 1937, and became so popular that in 1912, a motion picture was made by the Independent Motion Picture Co. called Winning the Latonia Derby, and featured silent film star King Baggot.

On October 11, 1924, 60,000 racing fans flocked to Latonia Race Track to witness the third and final edition of the International Special races that pitted the honored guest, French champion Epinard, against top American horses. The race featured stars of the day such as Chilhowee and Belmont Stakes winner Mad Play plus future U.S. Hall of Famers Princess Doreen and Sarazen. It was Sarazen who won the race and with it sealed Horse of the Year honors. Epinard finished second, as he had done in the previous two International Specials at Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack in New York. This event would be the high-water mark in the track’s history.

The name Latonia came from a nearby health springs resort that had been active before the Civil War. The racetrack had a beautiful Victorian clubhouse and grandstand, a lake, and handsomely planted grounds. It was regarded as among the United States’ top sites for racing, and drew more than 100,000 visitors annually.

By the turn of the 2oth century, the growing community surrounding the track took the name Latonia when it was incorporated into a city.  The commercial district, known as Ritte’s Corner, located at the intersection of Southern, Decorsey and Winston Avenues became the center of life in Latonia. Businesses located in the area included banks, saloons, clothing stores and markets. The desire to live in Latonia increased and housing was built in all directions surrounding the commercial district.

To keep up with growth, Latonia incurred a large public debt which it could not pay.  In 1909, the city of Covington agreed to assume Latonia’s debt in return for annexation.  A year later, it became a streetcar suburb of Covington, and its large population would account for 25 percent of Covington’s inhabitants.

By 1939, financial difficulties forced the race track to close. The track and grandstand were razed in   1941 and an oil refinery was built on the location by Standard Oil. The local area’s economy became dependent on railroad development, and the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Corp. employed many of Latonia’s residents.

The area became important to transportation. The Banklick Pike which connected much of Northern Kentucky with Cincinnati, ran directly through Ritte’s Corner.  The DeCoursey Railyards, south of Latonia, became a major employer for many local residents well into the 1980s.

Because it was at an intersection of major roads and rail lines leading into Covington and Cincinnati, Ritte’s Corner remained a center of community activity.  Engine Company No. 2 of the Covington Fire Department was located here.  Places of worship, like Calvary Baptist Church, Latonia Christian Church, Latonia Baptist Church, and Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church represented the growing masses which called Latonia home.  Stores such as Johnny’s Toy’s, Latonia Bakery, and Nick’s Place all became popular places for many to shop or eat.  Each of which still receive a heartwarming response from Northern Kentuckians who remember their legacy.

Ritte’s Corner was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. In 2001, the boundary was increased to include 3424-3601 Decoursey Ave., 9 E. Southern Ave. and CSX Railroad Property. Many of the districts commercial structures contain a significant collection of architectural styles.   Examples of Italianate, Arts and Crafts, Queen Anne, and Art Deco styles are all found within the Historic District which has thirty contributing and eight non-contributing properties significant in the growth and development of the community of Latonia in Covington.

In 1959, a new race track was built thirteen miles to the west of Latonia, near Florence, and was named for Latonia Race Track, but would be better known as New Latonia. The construction of the track was spearheaded by Matt Winn Williamson, the grandson of Colonel Matt J. Winn, the well-known Churchill Downs promoter at the turn of the twentieth century, and president of the Kentucky Jockey Club which ran Old Latonia.  New Latonia’s premiere race, the Jim Beam Stakes, started in 1982. The race is now called the Horseshoe Casino Spiral Stakes and is run every March. New Latonia was renamed Turfway Park in 1986, when it changed owners, and features fall, holiday, and spring racing.

 The track once stood west of the district boundary, across Winston Avenue.  The Latonia Shopping Center now occupies most of the original Latonia Race Track site. 

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