Faded Glory: The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Winners (Spokane, 1889)

February 2nd, 2024

Derby Day 1889 was a glorious day for a horse race. Warm and sunny, men and women streamed into Churchill Downs, the crowd larger than the one present when Ten Broeck and Mollie McCarty battled over the Louisville oval. Three years earlier, Ben Brush had represented the West in the winner’s circle, and that day, another horse carried the hopes of the region. 

Spokane’s turn in the Kentucky Derby brought down the house with its thrilling finish, a confrontation that started a rivalry and notched the Montana-bred’s name in the history books.

Big Sky Beginning 

Noah Armstrong made his money in finance and mining, and then, with his fortune secured, turned his energy toward breeding and racing horses. The Canadian native built his Doncaster ranch in his adopted home, the Montana Territory, and went to work acquiring bloodstock, including a mare named Interpose.

In foal to Hyder Ali, an early winner of the Champagne Stakes, Armstrong purchased the mare in a package deal from Illinois horseman General Richard Rowett. He chose Interpose because he had previously owned another winner from the same sire and dam, Grey Cloud. In 1886, Interpose foaled a chestnut colt while Armstrong was traveling in Spokane Falls, Washington Territory, earning his newest colt the name Spokane.

Armstrong set his sights on the Kentucky Derby, nearly tasting victory with Lord Raglan, who finished third behind Leonatus in 1883. Spokane showed racing aptitude in his two-year-old season. He won two of his five starts in 1888, taking the Maiden S. at Latonia and another five-furlong race at Nashville and finishing unplaced in his other three tries.

Trainer John Rodegap opted to wait until April 24 to start Spokane’s sophomore season in the Peabody Hotel S. at Memphis. He finished second in the nine-furlong test against older horses and then was shipped to Louisville for Churchill Downs’ spring meet, where the Kentucky Derby would be the opening-day feature. There, the Montana-bred would meet a challenger who had gotten the better of a legend.

Down to a Nose 

Named for a Kentucky governor, Proctor Knott came into 1889 with a strong two-year-old season behind him, including a victory over Salvator in the inaugural Futurity S. In the eight-horse Derby, the son of future Hall of Famer Luke Blackburn was the local favorite, his odds 1-2, while Spokane went off at 6-1. The field endured two false starts by Proctor Knott, who galloped as far as a furlong down the track before returning to the line. With Tennessee native Tom Kiley in the saddle, Spokane got away to a clean start and sat midpack while the favorite fought his rider for his head through the first mile.

Kiley and Spokane rode the rail, picking off horses one by one as the field approached the stretch. Proctor Knott was five lengths ahead coming out of the far turn but squandered his advantage when he bolted for the outer rail. Spokane caught up with the leader, running on the inside rail while a tiring Proctor Knott ran along the outer rail. Though separated by the width of the track, the two appeared to hit the wire at the same time; at a time before the photo finish camera, the judges standing trackside were the ones who would decide the victor.

Fans who witnessed the close finish were divided, but the three men with the ultimate say — including the father of the Kentucky Derby, Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark — gave the nod to Spokane, a winner by a nose. His time was a record for the 12 furlongs, 2:34 1/2.

Five days later, Spokane bested Proctor Knott again in the Clark S. and then met him again in the American Derby at Washington Park in Chicago, Spokane coming out on top once more. On July 4, Proctor Knott finally defeated the Derby winner in the Sheridan S., where Spokane carried 10 more pounds than his rival. In the end, Spokane had the edge over Proctor Knott, but that American Derby win would be the Derby winner’s last.

Uncertain Conclusion 

At four, Spokane went winless in his four races but did manage three in-the-money finishes that season. Armstrong retired his Derby winner to stud after an injury necessitated the end of his time on the track. The son of Hyder Ali was reportedly sub-fertile, with only one stakes winner to his credit, but Spokane’s movements after his sale in 1898 are lost, the historical record incomplete.

The Montana-bred named for a Washington Territory city was so popular in the region that the citizens of Spokane Falls collected money for a commemorative blanket for their Derby winner, which he wore before each of his starts the rest of his career. Their gift is on display in the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, a testament to a colt named Spokane.