News that a Billings man is an owner of a horse that will run in the Kentucky Derby May 4 reminded people at the Montana Historical Society of what is arguably the most famous horse in state history.
The year was 1889, Montana was admitted as the nation’s 41st state, and Noah Armstrong, who raised horses near Twin Bridges, decided to enter his promising copper-toned stallion, in the Kentucky Derby.
Armstrong named the horse Spokane because the colt had been born in Spokane.
Spokane grew up on the nutritious bunchgrass and grew strong running in the high elevations and dry air in the shadow of the Tobacco Root Mountains.
Sportswriters of the day generally scoffed at horses bred in the West and gave Spokane no chance of victory in the derby. He was not only going up against eastern thoroughbreds, but Spokane would line up with Proctor Knott, a horse that one writer described as “the greatest horse that ever looked through a bridle.”
Proctor Knott was a 2-to-1 favorite and Spokane went off at 10 to 1. The pride of the East quickly took a five-length lead. But at the mile and a quarter mark, Proctor Knott veered to the side of the track in apparent exhaustion and Spokane, still looking fresh, sprinted up on the inside.
At the end of the race, one writer wrote, “there was a silence of death in the grandstand.” Spokane, the pride of Montana and the West, finished the mile-and-a-half race in a record 2:34.5 minutes.
Sportswriters and fans alike grumbled that the win was sheer luck. But Armstrong wasn’t done shaking up the world of horse racing. He entered Spokane in the then prestigious Clark Stakes in Louisville and in the American Derby in Chicago. Spokane won both races, which in those days was equivalent to winning today’s Triple Crown.
About a year later, Armstrong retired Spokane to his ranch, where he lived out his life.
So when an announcer at this year’s Race for the Roses notes that one of the owners of Frac Daddy — who was not bred in Montana — is Billings’ petroleum geologist Carter Stewart, Montanans can take pride in knowing they already are part of the rich history of the race.
In fact, Spokane’s time remains a derby record. His time stood up until 1896 when the derby was shortened to one-and-a-quarter miles — perhaps because of the strength and endurance that Spokane developed growing up under the Big Sky.