by Tom Emery
A unique historical anniversary for central Illinois comes up on Saturday, May 9, which marks 125 years since the Kentucky Derby victory of Spokane, who was bred just north of Carlinville. The legendary story of Spokane, one of the most cherished of the early winners of the Derby, was rooted in his breeding at “The Meadows,” the farm of General Richard Rowett located one mile north of Carlinville (adjacent west of Sievers Equipment).
Rowett horses and their jockey colors of orange jacket and blue cap, were familiar to turfmen on tracks throughout the west and south. But Spokane was the greatest production of The Meadows, a nationally recognized thoroughbred breeding ground.
Spokane’s legend started with Rowett, a legend in his own right. A Civil War officer and hero of the battle of Allatoona, Ga. on October 5, 1864, Rowett is also credited as the first to introduce the true-bred beagle hound to this country from his native England.
However, Rowett is best remembered for his eccentricities. In 1886, Rowett’s beloved war horse, Bay Charley, died suddenly, driving the General into deep mourning. He and his brother, Joseph, proceeded to conduct a military-style funeral for the horse, complete with the firing of a salute and the placing of a flag over the grave. Both men preserved a wisp of the horse’s mane. Charley originally faced north in his grave, but the brothers, believing the horse should “face the enemy,” took him out of the grave and turned him around before interment.
But Spokane stands alone in the life of Rowett and the history of the area. In 1885, a dark brown horse named Hyder Ali, a pride of the Rowett stock, was standing at The Meadows when Rowett bred him to one of his top mares, Interpose. This pairing had produced favorable offspring in the past, including Grey Cloud, a fine racer owned by Noah Armstrong of the Doncaster Ranch near Twin Bridges in the Montana Territory.
Armstrong’s famous stable included such horses as Lord Raglan, the third-place finisher in the 1883 Kentucky Derby. When Rowett offered Interpose for sale late in 1885, Armstrong, familiar with the high quality of Rowett stock, purchased the pregnant mare and her suckling filly, Madelin, for the price of $1,000 and shipped the brood to Montana.
The Doncaster Ranch was known for its spectacular, three-story round barn that featured an indoor track. It was another fine stable for Interpose, as Rowett’s own enormous barn was thought to be the largest in Macoupin County. While in Spokane in the Washington Territory on business, Armstrong received word of the birth of Interpose’s colt. In honor of his host city, he named the colt Spokane.
Spokane showed great promise as a two-year-old, winning two of five starts in 1888, and Armstrong entered him in the 1889 Kentucky Derby. Although a premier race, the Derby had not achieved the monumental status it enjoys today. The race was run on May 9, 1889–a Thursday–in front of a crowd of 25,000, a fraction of the throngs that fill Churchill Downs today.
Home state favorite Proctor Knott was the overwhelming favorite at 1-to-2, while the relatively unknown Spokane was listed at 10-to-1 odds. That was enough for one famous bettor–Frank James, brother of outlaw Jessie, a regular at countless tracks.
James, flush with a windfall of $2,400 from an earlier race that day, asked a bookmaker of the odds on Spokane. The reply was “Ten-to-one and the sky’s the limit.” James proceeded to throw down $5,000 on Spokane, causing the bookmaker to say, “As far as I’m concerned, that’s the sky!”
Under jockey Thomas Kiley, Spokane earned his place in turf lore by edging Proctor Knott by a head. In doing so, he set a Derby record at 2:34 ½ over the mile-and-a-half layout (which was changed to a mile and a quarter in 1896). He remains the only Kentucky Derby winner ever born in Montana.
Proving the win was no fluke, Spokane again beat Proctor Knott five days later at the Clark Stakes in Louisville. On June 22, Spokane won another key race, the American Derby at Washington Park in Chicago, to become the first horse to win both races in the same season.
But Rowett did not live to see Spokane’s triumphs. He died as the result of a fatal heart attack on July 13, 1887–ironically at Washington Park, where he was selling some of his colts at auction. Rowett’s death came during a verbal altercation with a grocer over a bill of $24.
Insulted, Rowett raised his hand to strike the man, but fell backwards into a stall, dying within minutes. The national stature of Rowett was summarized in the obituary that appeared on page one of the New York Times the following day. The news was carried under a telling headline– “Died in His Stable.”
The legend of Rowett is seen in Spokane–and vice versa–as the chestnut colt carved his place in the history of the greatest thoroughbred race in the world with his thrilling victory 125 years ago this May.
Tom Emery of Carlinville, who wrote the award-winning 1997 biography Richard Rowett: Thoroughbreds, Beagles, and the Civil War, may be reached at 217-710-8392 or [email protected]