Everyone knows that the Kentucky Derby is “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” This year’s Derby is fast approaching on Saturday, May 1. So if you have any business to transact with people in Louisville, better do it now — I’ve never been there during Derby Week but I understand the whole city unofficially shuts down. What you might not know is that that the Kentucky Derby has a Lewis & Clark connection. Churchill Downs, the famous Louisville racetrack that hosts the Derby, was founded in 1875 by Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of William Clark.
I am going to try to learn more about William Clark’s children. For one thing, several of them will be characters in my next book, and I would like to understand them better. William Clark had seven children in all: five children with his first wife, Julia Hancock and two with his second wife, Harriet Kennerly Radford. Three of the children died as youngsters. From reading between the lines of Clark biographies like William Clark and the Shaping of the American West and Dear Brother, I gather that his four surviving sons — Meriwether Lewis Clark, William Preston Clark, George Rogers Hancock Clark, and Jefferson Kennerly Clark — all struggled in various ways, though few details are given.
Clark’s oldest son, who went by M. Lewis Clark, was born in 1809 not long before the death of his namesake, his father’s best friend and partner in discovery. M. Lewis was said to greatly resemble his father physically, but not in personality. Unfortunately, William Clark spoiled all his children, and M. Lewis grew up to be a high-tempered, shallow, and rather selfish man. He attended West Point, where he became good friends with a classmate by the name of Robert E. Lee. But unlike Lee, M. Lewis didn’t take to the military life (though he would later volunteer to serve in both the Mexican War and the Civil War). As soon as he could, he resigned his commission and returned to St. Louis, where he became a successful architect.
M. Lewis married a Louisville heiress named Abigail Prather Churchill. Unfortunately, like his father, it was Lewis’s fate to be bereaved. Abby died at the age of 35 a few days after giving birth to her seventh child. The oldest child was only 13, and in his bereavement Lewis turned for help in raising them, sending the children to live with Abby’s relatives in Louisville.
We turn our attention now to the third son, Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., known in the family as “Lutie.” Lutie was only six when his mother died, and he was raised by two bachelor uncles who raced thoroughbreds. Two family traditions about Lutie hold the key to his role in history and his eventual fate. One is that during his Kentucky boyhood and his extended trips to Europe as a young man, he came to share his uncles’ passion for horse racing. The other is that he was spoiled rotten.
By 1873, Lutie had grown into a great big bear of a man. At age 27, he was newly married and fired up to start making his own mark on the world. During a stay in Paris, he had seen pari-mutual betting machines in use on French racetracks. The machines eliminated bookmaking and other unsavory aspects of the horse racing trade. Lutie proposed to his uncles and other Churchill relatives that they back him in establishing a race track that would showcase their championship racing stock and use the innovative French system of betting. The family loved the idea, and Churchill Downs was built on family land and opened on May 17, 1875. A three-year-old race, known as the Kentucky Derby, was held that day, though it would not become the premier attraction at Churchill Downs until the early 20th century.
Churchill Downs became Lutie’s life and obsession. As track manager, he pioneered racing rules and standards that are still in use today and was a leader in creating the stakes system, on which the Breeder’s Cup is based. Unfortunately, Lutie Clark’s talents were obscured by his personality. There seemed to be nothing of his brave and lovable grandfather in him. Instead, he was bad-tempered, verbally abusive to those he considered his inferiors (which was just about everyone), and arrogant.
Lutie was even known to pull a gun to frighten people who did not show him the proper deference. In 1879, someone took him up on it and shot him instead. The story was that Lutie accused a prominent horse breeder of failing to pay his entry fees for the track. The breeder took it as a matter of honor and went to Lutie’s Galt House office to demand an apology or satisfaction (a duel). The two men got into a brawl and the breeder shot Lutie in the chest. Lutie recovered and no charges were ever filed.
Not long after, his wife moved out, taking their three children with her. (She would eventually move all the way to Paris — France, not Kentucky.) Lutie continued to manage the track in the 1880s, but in spite of his success, he managed to alienate his Churchill relatives one by one. In 1891, the family moved against him and fired Lutie from most of his duties at the track, though he did remain as presiding judge. Two years later, cruel fate caught up with Lutie in a big way, and he was wiped out financially in the stock market meltdown of 1893.
He turned to the only thing he knew: racing. Lutie managed to find work as a presiding judge at racetracks across the country. But his troubles had not humbled him. He got into an argument with a bartender in Chicago who took umbrage when Lutie branded Chicagoans “thieves and liars.” Lutie drew a gun on the bartender and forced the man to apologize to him at gunpoint, an incident that made the papers in both Chicago and Louisville.
In 1899, Lutie would again pull out his pistol. This time, it was to die by his own hand, apparently unable to face fears of getting older and the isolation he had brought upon himself. He was 53 years old.
On the lighter side, or maybe the heavier one, Lutie Clark wasn’t exactly a skinny man. Maybe he partook too liberally of one of the best aspects of a visit to Louisville, Derby Pie. The recipe for Derby Pie is a secret, but it’s really easy to make a similar pie at home. So when you settle in for this year’s Run for the Roses, raise a mint julep or a pie fork to William Clark’s grandson Lutie Clark , a great figure in the history of sports, if not exactly a nice guy.