Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. or “Lutie,” was the primary person responsible for building America’s most famous racetrack, Churchill Downs. He was the grandson of the famous adventurer General William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. His mother was a Churchill , whose family moved to Louisville in the 1700’s and owned 300 acres of land south of the city. The land was inherited through the family and donated for use to the Louisville Jockey Club.
Lutie had a vision of building a race track after returning from several trips to Europe where he was inspired by the 3 premier races in England; the Epsom Derby, the Epsom Oaks and the St. Leger. In the summer of 1874, Lutie and his cousins and other prominent Louisville sportsmen met at the Galt House and prepared papers of incorporation for plans to build the home of the Twin Spires.
Lutie became acting president and manager of the track and his cousins became the financial backers. The following May 17, 1875 was opening day, and Aristides became the first winner of the Kentucky Derby.
Charismatic, yet controversial (Lutie didn’t seem to think twice about shooting people he disagreed with) ) he was instrumental in originating not only the Kentucky Derby, but he was responsible for implementing the original Stakes System. He wrote many rules of racing which are still in effect today.
Sadly, he lost a fortune in the stock Market crash of 1893, and committed suicide, fearing a life of poverty. But his name lives on at Churchill through the Clark Handicap that has been running since the track began. It is one of the oldest stakes in North American racing. It is prominent because it was one of three races that Lutie envisioned, along with the Derby and the Oaks from the very beginning of his dream. It has been run a various distances, but since 1955 it has been at a 1&1/8 and since 1901 it has been for 3 year olds and up.
It’s being said that this year’s Clark could have Eclipse Award implications. You have two horses in here ( Flat Out -5th in the Classic, and Ruler On Ice – 3rd in the Classic) that if they could jump up and win, would then be taken more seriously for their divisional honors. Not sure I agree with that, but that’s a conversation for another time.
I look for Wise Dan to run a big one. He likes the strip and his connections are saying he is better than ever. While the distance is a question mark, I think he will give a good account of himself.