Champions day at Arlington International allows us to reflect on past Illinois bred champions. One of those champions made a name for himself 130 years ago. In 1889, Spokane won the Kentucky Derby in front of a near record crowd at Churchill Downs and became one of the few Illinois bred Kentucky Derby winners.
Spokane was bred at The Meadows farm, which was owned by Civil War veteran General Richard Rowett. His farm was one mile North of Collinsville Illinois and was well known for its Thoroughbred breeding operation.
Spokane was the son of Hyder Ali who also came from a successful bloodline. Hyder Ali was the son of Leamington who sired the first ever Kentucky Derby winner. Spokane’s mother was a mare named Interpose who was out of a half-sister to the 1872 Belmont Stakes and 1872 Travers Stakes winner, Joe Daniels.
In 1888, Spokane showed promise as a 2-year-old colt winning two of his first five starts. With his classic pedigree, his connections were high on him from the very beginning.
The 1889 Kentucky Derby was Spokane’s first real test. The Derby at the time was run at 1 ½-miles before being changed to 1 ¼-miles in 1896. Other than a previous match race that was held at Churchill Downs, the 1889 Kentucky Derby turned out to be the largest crowd the track had ever seen.
Proctor Knott was the odds on favorite and was the freak horse of the year coming in. He was a big, strong colt with a heavy head and carried a lot of weight for a 3-year-old colt. His jockey had trouble handling him throughout the whole race, and nearing the last portion of the race Proctor Knott bolted out and cost himself two or three lengths. Spokane sat just behind the troubled leader, and when the time was right he snuck up the rail and went on to win by a “throat latch” as explained in the 1889 Derby recap. Spokane went off at 16-1 odds that year and set the 1 1/2 –miles Kentucky Derby record going the distance in 2:34.5.
His owner, Noah Armstrong, took home $4,880 as the winner’s share of the Kentucky Derby.
John L O’Conner who wrote recaps of every Kentucky Derby from 1875-1921 in his book titled “History of the Kentucky Derby”, wrote:
“It is our conviction that with a stout armed jockey up, Proctor Knott would have won the race.”
He also went onto say, “we would not detract from the merits of Spokane, the winner, as he is a great race horse, but we think Proctor Knott is the greatest youngster we have seen in years.”
Spokane went on to prove industry experts wrong when five days later he once again beat Proctor Knott in the Clark Stakes at Churchill Downs. After the Clark, he won the American Derby, which would turn out to be his final career victory.
He was retired to stud, and stood in Kentucky for almost a decade.
Spokane was bred in Illinois and was foaled and raised in Montana. His Kentucky Derby win occurred six months before Montana achieved statehood. During Spokane’s career, Montana was still viewed as the Wild Wild West.