Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 130 days to go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 130 days to go!

130 Days! 1889 Spokane, the second Derby winner not bred in Kentucky, was often referred to as the Kentucky Derby winner that was "bred in Illinois, foaled in Montana, and trained in Tennessee".

Noah Armstrong bought Spokane’s dam, Interpose, and bred her to the stallion, Hyder Ali, that stood at “The Meadows”, an Illinois farm. His dam was then shipped to the Northwest Territory (it wasn't until November of 1889 that Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington were admitted to the union). He was foaled in the famous Doncaster Round Barn (a member of the National Registry of Historic Places), near Twin Bridges, MT. Armstrong was gone from the farm visiting Spokane when the foal was born, so he named him after the place he was visiting. An Indian tradition speaks of the legend of a horse named Spokane that was to be born. It came following a battle in 1858, when many horses and people were killed. It was said that the Great Spirit told one of the wounded warriors, “One day, the spirit horse will return with the speed, the endurance, and the pluck of all the horses dead on the battlefield. He will enter the body of a colt, and that colt will be called Spokane, and will go forth and conquer all the horses of the earth.”

At two, the John Rodegap trainee would run well, winning two of his five starts, one of which was the Maiden Stakes at Latonia racetrack. He began his 3YO season in Tennessee, finishing second in the Peabody Hotel Stakes. Kentucky Derby day was hot and very dusty, and the crowd was so large that people had trouble getting from place to place. They arrived by train, carriage, and cart, as well as an electric streetcar that made its first appearance in 1889. It was believed that at least 25,000 were in attendance, most of which came to see the 2YO Champion Proctor Knott, who was thought to be the greatest 2YO to come along in many years.

Betting was heavy, as it was the first time $2 wagers were allowed. In attendance was Frank James, the brother of Jesse James, who bet $5000 on Spokane at 10-1. The race was so close between the two that people speculated that the decision was maybe influenced because of who was in attendance. The field of eight made it to the barrier, only to have it broken twice by Proctor Knott, who was so headstrong that it took his jockey over a furlong each time to get him stopped.

Once the field was sent, Proctor Knott sped to the front and carved out the fastest fractions to be posted in the Derby at the mile and a half distance: the half in :48.1/2 and the mile in 1:41.1/2. Though he lost by a nose, the track record was broken in a time of 2:34 ½ , and Spokane owned the fastest running of the Kentucky Derby until the distance was changed in 1896. Proctor Knott was leading by 5 coming into the final turn, and by the time they reached the bottom of the turn, Spokane was in second and gaining.

“The History of the Kentucky Derby 1875-1921” gives a good description of the crazy finish here: "Coming round the lower turn Spokane took second place, and when they neared the three-quarter pole Barnes was unable to control Proctor Knott and hold his head up, bolted to the outside, and looked like he was going up the chute for a moment. This lost him some three or four lengths and before he could be straightened, Spokane came next to the rails and took the lead. Inside the sixteenth pole Proctor Knott came again, and after a driving race home in which Spokane swerved to the inner rail he managed to beat Proctor Knott on the post by a short throat latch, Once Again two lengths off third, he a head in front of Hindoocraft fourth, followed by Cassius, Sportsman, Outbound and Bootmaker, in the order named."

The New York Times called the 15th running of the Kentucky Derby, “the greatest Derby ever run, without a doubt.” Spokane was the victor and the only horse from Montana to ever win the race. While the result was shocking to some, Spokane would prove himself worthy when he again beat Proctor Knott in the Clark Handicap. He would also win the American Derby, becoming the first horse to win the Kentucky and American Derbies.

At four, during a race with 17YO Montana jockey Jim Dempsey aboard, Spokane stumbled and fell, throwing the rider. Dempsey would pass away from the injuries, upsetting Armstrong so much that he retired the horse. Spokane would live out his years on the Montana ranch. People had mocked Armstrong and his “Spirit Horse of the Rockies”, but they proved themselves on the day that it mattered.

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum