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Spokane, the Kentucky Derby winner of 1889, a part of Montana folklore
By Bill Mooney
Spokane is not among the more heralded Kentucky Derby winners. By an Illinois sire, he was foaled in Montana, trained for the races in Tennessee, and won the Derby’s 15th edition on May 9, 1889, 125 years ago.
The details of Spokane’s early years are fairly well documented, but the end portion of his life is a mystery. In Montana folklore, he’s known as the “Spirit Horse of the Rockies.” Spokane blazed forth from the western mountains and briefly dominated racing’s 3-year-old division. And when twilight beckoned, he disappeared.
Spokane was a good racehorse – as evidenced by his classic triumph at Churchill Downs and his victories in his next two starts, the Clark Stakes at Churchill and the American Derby at Washington Park near Chicago. Spokane’s Kentucky Derby was run at 1 1/2 miles, and his winning time of 2:34 1/2 was the fastest of the 21 editions of the event at that distance.
His margin of victory in the Kentucky Derby was described by Goodwin’s Official Turf Guide, a manual of record during that era, as “a short neck.” Many in the Churchill crowd, variously reported as in the range of 25,000-30,000, questioned the accuracy of the result. But Frank James (brother of Jesse) wasn’t among those displeased. He cashed for $5,000 with Spokane’s victory.
Proctor Knott, the odds-on choice with the bookmakers and in the pari-mutuel win pool, had a one-length lead midway through the Churchill stretch. But jockey Shelby “Pike” Barnes was having immense difficulty controlling the colt. With about a furlong remaining, Proctor Knott suddenly veered on a sharp angle toward the outside.
Meanwhile, Spokane, ridden by Thomas Kiley, was making a late move on the rail and took the lead with a sixteenth of a mile remaining. In essence, Spokane’s path was arrow-straight, while Proctor Knott was forging front and sideways at the same time.
In those days, the Churchill judges’ stand was on a platform in the infield adjacent to the finish line. Spokane swept under the wire in close proximity to the stand, while Proctor Knott, after regaining his forward stride, completed the race on the far side of the track’s crown.
There were no photo-finish cameras, film patrols, or slow-motion television replays to assist in deciding the issue. Five minutes passed, and then the judges put Spokane’s number at the top of the result board. The margin between the top two and the third-place finisher in the field of eight was two lengths. The race had pretty much been Spokane versus Proctor Knott, with the rest providing supporting roles.
It was not a major upset, but it was surprising, even to a key member of Spokane’s team. Kiley subsequently told the Nashville American that he had “wagered $25 to win on Proctor Knott,” which would be a scandalous admission today, but was within the acceptable boundaries of that era.
Among most on-site bookmakers, Spokane was the 6-1 second choice. At the mutuel windows, he returned $34.80 to win and $6.30 to place; it was the first year that $2 win wagers were available.
Spokane’s breeder of record and owner, Noah Armstrong, received a winner’s share of $4,880 from the purse of $5,330. A correspondent for the May 18, 1889, edition of Spirit of the Times assessed the race as “the greatest Derby ever run in America.”
In the decades that ensued, turf chroniclers made efforts to romanticize the Spokane story. His birthplace was a starting point – Spokane’s Kentucky Derby win occurred six months prior to the Montana Territory achieving statehood, and only 13 years subsequent to the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In Spokane’s day, Montana was still viewed by as the wild, largely untamed West.
Romanticism often inspires fantasy. In 1951, Horace Wade wrote about Spokane as a yearling on the Montana range, when he “desperately outran the raking claws” of a mountain lion that left wounds and “life-long scars” across his flank. Wade’s article was published in Police Gazette, a lively periodical not renowned for the accuracy of its sources.
But documentation exists for other components of the Spokane story. His sire, Hyder Ali, was a son of the imported stallion Leamington (who also sired the first Kentucky Derby winner, Aristides), and a grandson of the great sire Lexington.
Spokane’s dam, Interpose, was out of a half-sister to the 1872 Belmont and Travers Stakes winner, Joe Daniels. Armstrong purchased Interpose as part of a multi-horse, $1,000 transaction in 1885. She was in foal to Hyder Ali, who stood at the Meadows Farm owned by the Civil War veteran, General Richard Rowett, in Collinsville, Ill.
Armstrong was originally from Kingston, Ontario. In his young adulthood he migrated to Minnesota, and subsequently to the Montana Territory when he was about age 40.
He became a wealthy mining entrepreneur, and during business trips to the East, became involved in the Thoroughbred business. Armstrong’s colt, Lord Raglan (a son of Ten Broeck), was a stakes winner at Saratoga, in Chicago, and in Memphis at age 2, and finished third to Leonatus in the 1883 Kentucky Derby.
The pregnant Interpose was shipped to Armstrong’s Doncaster Ranch at Twin Bridges in Montana’s southwestern sector, at the confluence of the Ruby, Beaverhead, and Big Hole Rivers. Armstrong was on a business trip in Spokane Falls, Washington Territory, when Interpose foaled a chestnut colt. Armstrong named him Spokane.
At age 2, Spokane was sent to Tennessee to be trained by John Rodegap, an Illinois native who had been conditioning Thoroughbreds for about five years. On October 2, 1888, Spokane (at third asking) won the Maiden Stakes at Latonia. In five starts at age 2, he was twice a winner and thrice unplaced.
His 3-year-old campaign commenced with a second-place effort against older horses in the 1 1/8-mile Peabody Hotel Handicap in Memphis. Fifteen days later, Spokane won the Kentucky Derby.
Luck was a factor. As the Derby field was moving into line, Proctor Knott twice ran off with his rider. The aforementioned Barnes was aboard more than his hands could handle that afternoon.
But ability figured in, too. Kiley, whose overall win ratio of 35.6 percent that year easily outdistanced the 29.7 percent achieved by Isaac Murphy, who was riding at the top of his game. And Spokane’s Derby time was just a half-second slower than the North American record for 12 furlongs, jointly held by Luke Blackburn and Jim Guest.
Five days later, Spokane beat Proctor Knott again, winning the 1 1/4-mile Clark Stakes by two lengths in a time of 2:12 1/5. The following month, Spokane was victorious in the 1 1/2-mile American Derby, with Proctor Knott finishing last in the field of seven.
The American Derby winner’s share of the purse was $15,400 – well more than those of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes combined. Spokane had ascended to star status.
And then the star imploded. On July 4, Proctor Knott defeated Spokane in Washington Park’s Sheridan Stakes. And in three more starts at age 3 and 4 the following year, Spokane never won again.
From there, documentation dwindles. Armstrong sold his Montana ranch at the turn of the century, moved to Seattle, Wash., and died at age 84 on April 21, 1907. His three-story round barn where Spokane was foaled still stands and is a Montana tourist attraction.
Rodegap conditioned at least two other Kentucky Derby starters. In 1897, he sent out Goshen, a colt he also owned, to finish fifth to Typhoon II. In 1902, he finished second by a nose to Alan-A-Dale with T.W. Moore’s colt Inventor.
It was Inventor’s only start of the year, and he hung in the closing yards. Rodegap died in Louisville on May 26, 1913, from a heart problem complicated by cancer issues.
Kiley won his second consecutive American Derby aboard G.V. Hankins’s colt Uncle Bob in 1890. The following year, he finished last in a four-horse field in the Kentucky Derby with George J. Long’s colt Hart Wallace.
But Kiley won the 1 1/4-mile Chicago Derby at Hawthorne in 1891 with Ed Corrigan’s colt Brookwood. In his later years, Kiley was a trainer on the “western circuit,” which involved St. Louis/Kansas City tracks. Kiley died in East St. Louis, Ill., on March 11, 1914.
And Spokane? He did stud duty for a while in Kentucky at Fairhaven Stock Farm; and at Niddervale Stock Farm; and at Elmendorf Farm; and, as late as 1897, at Maxwelton Stock Farm. The fee for his services apparently never exceeded $50, and none of his offspring did much. If there ever were references in Thoroughbred journals to a “Spokane line,” they elude discovery
Newspaper articles from the period include unverified accounts that Spokane was shipped back to Montana; that at age 6, Armstrong wanted to return him to racing; that Spokane was fatally stabbed by a farm worker with a pitchfork; that he was mortally injured in a railroad accident; and, more happily, that he died a natural death in Ennis, Montana, at age 30.
Spokane’s gravesite (if he had one) is unknown.
I am a descendant of Noah Armstrong. I own the Henry Stull commission painting of Spokane. I appreciate a well written account on Spokane. Jacobylowney@gmail.com
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