The Kentucky Derby is the oldest consecutively run thoroughbred horse race in the United States and one of the most prestigious horse races in the world. Run on the first Saturday in May each year at the world famous Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, it attracts the attention of millions of fans who attend in person, watch on television, or listen by radio. The celebratory pomp and circumstance attending this event is unparalleled in American sports. You’ve simply got to see it to believe it.
The most sought after prize in American thoroughbred racing is the Triple Crown, awarded to the horse who can win all 3 of America’s most competitive events in one season; the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness, and The Belmont Stakes. The challenge is only open to 3 year olds. Only 11 horses have ever won the triple crown and it hasn’t been won since Affirmed won all three races in 1978. The Kentucky Derby is the first jewel of the Triple Crown and naturally all eyes turn to Churchill Downs each Spring to see which contender will take the first jewel.
When speaking of the history of the Kentucky Derby, it is impossible to ignore the history of Churchill Downs, as their stories are so intertwined . Few would ever guess the now famous race and its home, Churchill Downs, have origins connected to George Roger’s Clark, the revolutionary war hero who founded Louisville, Kentucky and his brother William Clark, who explored the great north west with Meriwether Lewis. The connection to the two famous Clarks is Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. , who founded and built the track at Churchill Downs and commissioned the first Kentucky Derby. Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, known as “Lutie” Clark, was the grandson of William Clark and the great nephew of George Roger’s Clark.
Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. was born in Louisville, Kentucky January 27, 1846 to Meriwether Lewis Clark and Abigail Prather Churchill. Upon his mother’s death, at the age of 6, he was sent to live with his Aunt and Uncle who raised him to adulthood. Lutie’s Uncles John and Henry Churchill were said to be inseparable and cultivated an interest in horse breeding in their young nephew. As a young adult, Lutie was also introduced to horse racing by his father-in-law Richard Ten Broeck, who was an accomplished horse breeder and trainer.
The dream that became the legend of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby all started when Lutie Clark, an ambitious 26 year old, traveled abroad and attended two of Europe’s most famous horse racing events. While overseas in 1872 and 1873 he attended the Epsom Derby near London England and the Grand Prix de Paris in Paris France. He met with their respective representatives and inquired about their operations while conceiving his plan to build a similar facility back home in Louisville, Kentucky.
Upon his return home he convinced his Uncles John and Henry Churchill to lease him 80 acres of their family property for the purpose of building a race track. In 1874 he organized and formed the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association, by selling 320 subscriptions for $100.00 per share. Lutie served as its first President. On May 17, 1875 the first Kentucky Derby was run at the park, which provided a great thrill to ten thousand cheering fans.
Lutie Clark borrowed the format and theme of the Epsom Derby for his own inaugural event. He organized the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Clark Handicap based on England’s Epsom Derby, Epsom Oaks, and the St. Leger Stakes. Lutie’s dream garnered great attention and by all appearances it was a great success.
Lutie Clark’s promotional skills helped make the annual event a big hit with members of high society and for the first 20 years of its existence the event remained very popular with those of privilege. However, despite its social success, the Louisville Jockey’s Club and Driving Park was a financial failure.
Other problems developed as a result of Lutie Clark’s bizarre and threatening behavior. There are numerous accounts of gun brandishing confrontations between Lutie and those who took issue with him. In 1879 Lutie Clark denied breeder T.G. Moore permission to race at the Louisville Jockey Club, claiming Moore’s entry fees were past due. Moore, a prominent breeder, took the announcement as a personal insult and demanded an apology; Lutie refused and ordered Moore out of his Galt House office. When T. G. Moore told Lutie he would regret his refusal to apologize, Lutie Clark knocked Moore to the ground, held his gun on him and ordered him off the property. Moore left the room, got a gun and shot through the door striking Lutie in the chest below his right arm. Moore turned himself in to the authorities, but no charges were ever filed. Lutie banned Moore from the park for the rest of the season, yet reversed his decision a year later.
A few years later, when Lutie was working as a steward at a Chicago track, a bartender at Clark’s hotel took offense at Clark’s calling Chicagoans “thieves and liars,” and confronted Lutie. Clark pulled out his gun, pressed it against the bartender’s chest and forced him to apologize. The story was reported in both Chicago and Louisville newspapers. The Churchill brothers were furious.
Lutie developed an infamous reputation among citizens of Louisville, and in response they began referring to the Louisville Jockey’s Club as Churchill’s Downs. Though intended as an insult, the name soon eclipsed the official name in popularity and it was eventually adopted by the park as its new official name. The first record of its use is found in an 1883 newspaper article.
In 1894 the members of the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association, supported by Lutie’s Uncle John and Henry Churchill, dismissed Lutie from his position as President of the association. The Association was sold to a group of investors, headed by Louisville bookmaker William F. Shulte. The association was incorporated and capital was raised to improve the facilities at the park. During this time Lutie Clark continued to serve as a Judge for racing events and traveled to other tracks where he performed the same duties, but he had lost control of the park he worked so hard to build.
One of the first things Schulte did was order construction of a new 1,500-seat, $100,000 grandstand on the opposite side of the track from the original stands. The new grandstand was topped by two twin spires, which were to become the hallmark of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. The twin spires were designed by architect Joseph Dominic Baldez. Schulte’s efforts did little to boost the financial condition of the enterprise, and the track continued to lose money through the end of the 19th century.
Lutie Clark was a hostage to the fact that he did not own the land upon which Churchill Downs was built. His Uncle John and Henry Churchill retained ownership and having lost faith in their confrontational nephew, they made certain he would never control it again. Lutie’s Uncle John and Henry Churchill provided for Lutie in their respective wills, but insured that he could never inherit the land upon which the race track was built. This might not have been the case, however, had Lutie’s Uncle John not remarried at the ripe old age of 71 to Tina Nichols, a 36 year old aristocrat from a prominent Kentucky family. John and Tina had a child who would become the ultimate beneficiary of the two Uncle’s land holdings.
Lutie Clark Death
On April 22, 1899 Lutie Clark took his own life by shooting himself with a pistol. He is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery located approximately 8 miles north and east of the race track. The popular belief is that Lutie feared a life of loneliness and poverty, which he seemed destined for at the age of 53. After suffering two failed marriages, financial ruin in the stock market crash of 1893, and dismissal from his managerial post at the Louisville Jockey’s Club, it is easy to see how he might have reached that conclusion.
Despite his ill tempered personality, Lutie Clark made significant contributions to the sport of horse racing. Among his more notable achievements, Lutie Clark was the first to introduce pari-mutuel wagering machines to the State of Kentucky. He served as chairman of the first American Turf Congress, held at the Galt House Hotel, in Louisville and in that capacity wrote many of the racing rules which are still in force today. He was a zealous advocate for establishing a uniform system of weights and pioneered the stakes system of racing. He created the Great American Stallion Stake, which formed the foundation upon which the present day’s Breeder’s Cup is based. He was also a vocal opponent of all races in which officials and reporters were permitted to wager. He might also be remembered for having introduced one of the Kentucky Derby’s most beloved traditions: the Mint Julep.