One of the seminal moments in Montana sports history came down to a judgment call.
Did the longshot horse named Spokane, foaled on a ranch near Twin Bridges, really nose out heavily favored Proctor Knott in the 1889 Kentucky Derby?
Did Montana silver mining magnate Noah Armstrong’s 3-year-old chestnut colt, conceived in Illinois, named for a Washington Territory town and trained in Tennessee, really knock off the Kentucky-bred speedster named after former Kentucky governor James Proctor Knott?
The chief judge said yes.
Horse racing has been around as long as horses have been. Helena author Brenda Wahler traces the evolution and pinpoints the first recorded contest in Montana in “Montana Horse Racing: A History,” which will be released by The History Press on Monday.
The Lewis and Clark expedition was camped at Travelers’ Rest on July 2, 1806, when both captains noted the racing in their journals.
“The Indians and Some of our men amused themselves in running races on foot as well as with their horses,” Capt. William Clark noted.
How strange, Wahler asked, that the man who decided Spokane’s fate as the only Montana horse to win the crown jewel of thoroughbred racing was Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, William Clark’s grandson, founder of Churchill Downs and creator of the Kentucky Derby?
“There was outrage, sheer outrage, that Spokane beat the great one, named after the governor of Kentucky who had very strong pro-Confederate sympathies,” Wahler said in a telephone interview Friday. Clark, she added, was "quite a curmudgeon, quite a contrarian" who didn't care much about the criticism that was rained down on him.
Spokane's time of 2 minutes, 34½ seconds over a mile and a half was a Derby record that still stands. Seven years later the Kentucky Derby went to the shorter distance of a mile and a quarter.
Wahler is a Helena attorney who owns Wahler Equine, an education and consulting business. She has been around horses all her life, teaching riding lessons and judging horse shows. She was showing horses in the 1970s and '80s, when racetracks in Montana were at their peak.
“I never participated but I followed Secretariat when I was a kid and all that kind of thing,” she said.
Racing ended at Helena’s signature mile track in 1999. Wahler said she got involved 12 to 15 years ago with the Save the Track Foundation, which unsuccessfully aimed to preserve the track at the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds and nominate it to the National Register of Historic Places.
“That really woke me up to how horse racing was important to the whole horse industry in Montana,” she said.
At about the same time Wahler provided a few articles to the Montana Horsemen’s Journal, now defunct. Meanwhile, the last remnants of pari-mutuel racing were shutting down in Missoula, Kalispell, Billings and Hamilton. But a new turf club, advised by the Western Montana Turf Club in Missoula, formed in Great Falls and in 2013 got the go-ahead from Cascade County commissioners to revive racing there after a two-year hiatus.
Great Falls remains one of only two tracks open for annual meets in the state controlled by the Montana Board of Horse Racing. The other is Miles City, which holds races at the annual Bucking Horse Sale in late May.
In 2014 California Chrome took the thoroughbred racing world by storm, winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
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At that time, Wahler said, “I really noticed an uptick in enthusiasm for racing."
She wrote an article about the fledgling but growing Great Falls race meet for Best of Great Falls Magazine.
“From there I began to realize how rich the history of racing was in Montana,” she said.
Wahler went back to 1876 to find when Missoula founder C.P. Higgins, John Rankin and others staged a race meet at a new track west of South Russell Street. She found fascinating articles about Robert Vaughn and his horse racing operation at Sun River.
“I think I knew about Scottish Chieftain,” the Marcus Daly horse that in 1897 became the only Montana horse to win the Belmont Stakes in New York, she said.
“But it was like, oh, right, and I began to realize how huge Marcus Daly’s operation was. All this was percolating in my head when I came across History Press, pitched the idea of a book and they agreed to publish it.”
The South Carolina company is the largest publisher of local and regional content in the nation. Wahler said they were good to work with, because the more research she did the more she found to research and write about. She blew by her 50,000-word limit with a first draft of 72,000 words and felt like it could have been much longer.
She has whittled the final version to 63,000 words, with dozens of photos both historic and her own. Most of the cuts came by getting rid of copious citation notes.
“I’m a lawyer in my day job,” she quipped. “Lawyers cite everything.”
After a 10-page introduction and timeline, and a chapter tracing the advent of horses and racing in the New World and Montana, Wahler starts knocking off the tracks. She documents by chapter the history of racing in Fort Benton, Virginia City and Deer Lodge in the earliest days, then on to Helena, Butte and Anaconda and Daly’s Bitter Root Stock Farm in Hamilton during what she called racing's first Golden Age in Montana.
Missoula's rise and fall occupies Chapter 10. A chapter on rural race tracks folds in Kalispell and the Flathead, including mention of Mick Ruis' ranch near Bigfork where 2018 Kentucky Derby contender Bolt D'Oro was started.
Wahler hasn’t ignored the first Montana horse racers. While not state-sanctioned or controlled, racing continues in places like Browning, Crow Agency, Dodson, Baker and Busby. It includes the popular Indian relay racing that Wahler said is helping keep tracks around the state from disappearing under development.
Traces of Spokane’s first training track remain. Wahler said she noticed its oval outline on a search of Google Maps. It's outside the iconic, round Doncaster Barn north of Twin Bridges. Armstrong, who maintained the altitude of Montana could produce world-class racers with superior lung capacity and endurance, bought the ranch in 1882 and started building the three-story barn that Wahler notes is “tiered like a wedding cake.”
Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the eye-catching round barn has been renovated in recent years into a privately operated event center.
It stands just off Highway 41, about a mile from the winding Jefferson River. Capt. William Clark, bothered by an abscessed foot, passed by in a canoe on the river in 1805, and again in 1806 on his way downstream.
More than 80 years later, Clark’s grandson helped make Doncaster Barn, Spokane, Noah Armstrong and a history of Montana horse racing worth writing a book about.