American Indians brought horses into Montana in the 1700s, beginning a stellar history of horse racing that spans several centuries. The tiny town of Racetrack near Deer Lodge commemorates the earliest form of the sport. According to local tradition, Indian horsemen raced their fast ponies along its straightaway.
Billy Bay was Montana's first famous thoroughbred. Native people reportedly brought the Kentucky stallion here from the region north of the Great Salt Lake. Trader Malcolm Clarke, whose stage stop was the site of the present Sieben Ranch headquarters, acquired the horse from his Blackfeet in-laws. Billy Bay already had a reputation for winning inter-tribal races.
Miners loved a good race, and the streets of most mining camps served as early racetracks. Virginia Slade, an expert horsewoman, acquired Billy Bay from Clarke and rode him in the Sunday races held in the streets of Virginia City. It was Billy Bay that carried his mistress hell-bent down the road into Virginia City to save her miscreant husband, hanged by the vigilantes in March of 1864. That wild ride was one race Billy Bay did not win.
Racing enthusiasts made the rounds of the mining camps looking for challengers and wagers. Johnny Grant, who brought a herd of horses into the Deer Lodge Valley in 1859, made these circuits with his mare, Limber Belle. He advertised in the Montana Post in November 1864 that she would race anywhere in the territory.
Some prominent early settlers like Morgan Evans of the Deer Lodge Valley and Robert Vaughn of Sun River began to raise blooded racehorses. Montanans raised both thoroughbreds for running races under saddle and standardbreds for trotting races under harness.
Silas S. Harvey's Red Cliff Breeding Farm at Clancy, established in 1870, boasted Mambrino-Clay trotting stock from Kentucky, including the renowned stallion Black Diamond. Harvey employed a professional trainer and maintained top-notch facilities for his trotters. The barn with its Red Cliff ghost sign is still a Clancy landmark.
Deer Lodge banker S. E. Larabie raised fine thoroughbreds. Larabie established the Willow Brook racing farm at Deer Lodge in 1880. His training stables were at Lexington, Ky., but his famous horses were all bred in Montana.
Big money racetracks at Butte and Anaconda in the 1880s put Montana racing on the national map. Anaconda's track was a proving ground for Marcus Daly's famous thoroughbred racers and standardbred trotters. Trainers, jockeys and drivers came from all over the country to race there. Montana's scores made newspapers across the nation.
Some Montanans were involved in high-stake races, and their stock made the national circuits. S. E. Larabie's Ben Holladay won many national races including the Morris Park handicap in 1898. Other Larabie-bred horses of distinction included Poet Scout, Decapod and Halma, all of whom took first places in national high stakes races.
Successful Glendale miner/investor Noah Armstrong bred thoroughbreds as a hobby on his ranch near Twin Bridges. Armstrong's huge round barn, still a landmark along Montana 41, had a sheltered quarter-mile track. The famous thoroughbred Spokane was foaled and trained there. Spokane had little experience when he ran the 15th Kentucky Derby in 1889. Bookies overlooked him at 6 to 1 odds, favoring proven winner Proctor Knott, but Spokane made racing history. The copper-colored horse from the copper state passed Proctor Knott to win by a head, breaking the previous Derby record.
Copper king Marcus Daly established the Bitter Root Stock Farm near Hamilton in 1887. One of Daly's business partners, San Francisco attorney James Ben Ali Haggin, was a native Kentuckian whose family was prominent in the horse-racing business. Haggin and Missoulian A. B. Hammond encouraged Daly's love of racehorses. Daly believed that the Bitterroot Valley was the ideal place to breed and train trotters and thoroughbreds. He figured that horses raised and trained at higher altitudes had more stamina. Daly built the best facilities and imported veterinarians, trainers, and young African-American jockeys to exercise and ride his horses.
Daly's farm produced some remarkable champions. Standardbred trotters Ponce de Leon, China Silk and Prodigal won substantial purses. But his thoroughbreds made his stables nationally famous. Montana (Suburban winner, 1892), Ogden (Futurity winner, 1896) and Tammany were among the best. Tammany won both the Lawrence Realization and Withers Stake races at New York's Belmont Park in 1892.
In 1893, a crowd of 15,000 witnessed Tammany defeat Lamplighter by four lengths in a legendary match race at New Jersey's Guttenberg track. Jockey Snapper Garrison (who rode Montana to a smash finish in the Suburban handicap in 1892) led Tammany to such a breathtaking finish that it became known as a Garrison finish, a term defined in Webster's dictionary. The win established Tammany as the East's best thoroughbred racer from 1892 to 1894.
With Daly's death in 1900, the dispersal sales of his two hundred thoroughbreds were the most impressive in American horse racing history. James Ben Ali Haggin purchased some of them. Bitter Root stock bloodlines went on to produce famous horses including Kentucky Derby winners Regret, Paul Jones, Zev, and Flying Ebony.
While horse racing in Montana became big business, the industry's roots were planted first in communities like Virginia City, Deer Lodge and Helena during the 1860s.
The Territorial Fairs in Helena are a major cornerstone in Montana's colorful racing history. Helena's first racetrack was at Madam Coady's Two-Mile House "two miles from Helena on the Hot Spring Road." Her 1-mile Fashion Course became the site of the Territorial Fair in 1868 and the territory's first regionally organized horse races. The second territorial fair at the Fashion Course in 1869 included an expanded racing program with trotting under harness and flat racing under saddle open to "all the horses in the territory." The trotting events paid purses of $200 and $100.
The fair association reorganized in August of 1870, purchasing property north of Helena. Association trustees included C. W. Mather, John Kinna, Hugh Kirkendall, Cornelius Hedges, A. M. Holter, D. C. Corbin, D. A. G. Flowerree, Conrad Kohrs and J. F. Forbis.
The Board of Trustees adopted the rules of the American Horse Congress to govern the trotting races and the rules of the California State Agricultural Society to govern the running races. In September, the Helena Herald pronounced the grounds finished and the racetrack, designed to accommodate six to eight sulkies abreast, the finest in the territory. It was the territory's only regulation 1-mile track. "The home-stretch, just a quarter mile in length," said the Herald, "is almost perfectly straight."
The rules, however, were not strictly enforced and some criticized the association for not observing published start times. As the association gained experience, races became better organized. While other communities had racetracks, Helena's track continued to be the territory's only regulation one-mile track.
The early fairs attracted racers from as far away as Salt Lake City. Imported Kentucky thoroughbreds, Montana-bred runners and trotters, and nonpedigreed horses all raced at the Helena track in the early years. S. E. Larabie, Silas Harvey, William H. Ewing, Hugh Kirkendall, Elijah Dunphy, and O. J. Salisbury were among the well-known Montana owners.
By 1884, Helena was a main part of the Montana circuit that included Butte and Bozeman. The sport had evolved too. Races were no longer open to all horses, but rather the entrants had to go through a nomination process to be accepted to race.
After statehood in 1889, the fair became the State Fair, although not affiliated with Montana government. While some objected to the focus on horse racing, purses of $300, $500 and $1,000 in the various categories of trotting and running emphasize the importance of these races and the Helena track.
In 1890, the State Fair attracted horses from as far away as Spokane and Denver. The Denver Trotting Stables' entries arrived on special Montana Central cars built for transporting racehorses. The aggregate purse was $15,000. The Daily Independent noted the building of a new track, the brown earth a picture between whitewashed fencing and green grass. "Helena," said the Independent, "has the only regulation racecourse in the state; it is as smooth as a billiard table ..."
Local tradition has it that carloads of imported Kentucky earth were spread on the track to bring it luck. While the spur line to the fairgrounds made this possible, the legendary importation of Kentucky soil remains undocumented.
The 1891 State Fair drew owners, horses and jockeys from Miles City and Dillon in Montana, the Suison Stock Farm in California, and from Idaho, Oregon, Nevada and Kansas City. Copper king W. A. Clark, rancher Morgan Evans, and future senator Lee Mantle all entered horses. Into the 20th century, the Helena racetrack continued to attract the best horses, jockeys and notable owners.
The state began to subsidize the fair in 1903. In 1904, the Capital Stock Food Company of Helena sponsored a new event. Buffalo Bill Cody's "Pony Express Race" inspired Montana's version of the relay. Racers rode only thoroughbreds and distances varied. Riders changed horses and sometimes their own saddles at top speed. Fannie Sperry, later the Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World, rode Montana's first relay race at the fairgrounds racetrack.
In 1914 the Montana Legislature passed a statute that prohibited betting on horse races and, in 1915, substantially cut the fairgrounds' maintenance appropriation. Drought in the 1910s impacted agricultural displays. The fair began to decline.
A new track built inside the 1-mile racetrack for automobile racing brought a new attraction in 1916, but horse racing -- despite the abolishment of betting -- remained popular. Betting resumed in 1930. More than 350 horses from the best circuits in Canada, Mexico and the United States vied for generous purses. The new parimutuel machine system added a new and exciting element.
The last State Fair in Helena was in 1932. In 1937, the fairgrounds became an auto trailer camp. Later that year, "Mother" Berry, widow of the veterinarian who had cared for Hugh Kirkendall's race horses many years previous, lost her home at the back of the track to fire. The last of the "old-time" stables built before 1900 also burned, but Mrs. Berry's prize thoroughbred Rosa Lockwood and 10 racehorses belonging to George Cooney were unharmed. Cooney was leasing the racetrack and the stables at the time.
With the first Last Chance Stampede in 1961, horse racing returned to the fairgrounds; the last races were held in 1998. Today the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds racetrack is one of the oldest 1-mile tracks west of the Mississippi. Saratoga, built in 1864, is the oldest. Monmouth, Pimlico and Lewis and Clark all date to 1870.
While the later 1880s tracks at Anaconda and Butte fell victim to urban development, Helena's track remains to tell the story of early racing in Montana. The Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds track is the state's only surviving racetrack from early territorial days and it is still the only 1-mile regulation course in Montana.
Ellen Baumler is the Montana Historical Society's interpretive historian.