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The Sad Fate of the Kentucky Derby's Founder

Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., also known at "Lutie" among his friends and loved ones descends from American "royalty," so to speak. His grandfather was the famous explorer and later Missouri governor, General William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

His father was Major Meriwether Lewis Clark, who worked as aide de camp and was the step-father-in-law to the famous General Stephen Watts Kearny, the great general who fought in the Mexican-American War, winning the California territory and served as military governor of the New Mexico territory.

Lutie's mother was Abigail Prather Churchill, one of the first families of Kentucky who settled 300 acres of land in 1787, five years before Kentucky was granted statehood.

Lutie's Parents Abigail, nee Churchill and Meriwether Lewis Clark, Sr.

Lutie's father, M. Lewis as he styled himself, had been spoiled by his parents and he was a rather hot-tempered, shallow, selfish man. He attended West Point, where he became good friends with General Robert E. Lee, but, aside from his brief stint as an aide de campe in the Mexican American war, he wasn't much interested in a military life. So he resigned his commission as soon as he could and returned to St. Louis where he became a successful architect. In fact, he designed St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church.

While on a military assignment in Louisville, Kentucky, M. Lewis married the Louisville Churchill heiress, Abigail (her younger brother went on to be Arkansas Governor Thomas James Churchill). Unfortunately, in 1852, she died while giving birth to her seventh child at the age of 35. In the image below is M. Lewis at the center of his children. The wife and newborn are absent, indicating this was taken after their deaths, right before he decided to send Lutie to Aunt Churchill. I'm uncertain if he sent all the children there or if they were all sent to different friends and relatives.

As the oldest child was only 13, M. Lewis needed help raising them, so he sent them to Louisville to live with their wealthy Aunt Churchill and her two sons, John and Henry, two bachelor men with a love for thoroughbreds.

Lutie, as the third son, was only six when his mother died and he quickly adapted to the high-living the Churchills enjoyed. He was spoiled rotten by an extravagant life-style that included long-term travels in Europe and a passion for horses and racing that his uncles shared.

In 1873, Lutie was 27, newly married and eager to make his mark on the world. during a stay in Paris, he had seen the betting machines the French used at their racetracks which eliminated bookmaking. Lutie suggested to his uncles that they should establish a racetrack back in Kentucky that would showcase their champion horses and use the French betting system.

Since the uncles had inherited the Churchill land, they donated the land to Lutie to use in developing his racetrack. The Kentucky Derby, focused on racing three-year-old horses, opened on May 17, 1875 (an early drawing below, the first picture in 1901 at the bottom).

As track manager, Lutie (pictured above), also often called "Colonel Clark," pioneered racing rules and standards that are still in use today, including the stakes system upon which the Breeder's Cup is based. However, any success he enjoyed was overshadowed by his mercurial personality. He was an ill-tempered, verbally abusive, arrogant man. In fact, he was known to pull a gun on people to frighten them when he felt they'd disrespected him.

Such behavior came to a head in 1879 when Lutie accused a prominent horse breeder, T. G. Moore, for failing to pay his entry fees to the track. Moore went to Luite's Galt House office (now a luxury hotel in Louisville, pictured below in the 1920s), and demanded an apology or "satisfaction" (old speak for "duel"). A brawl ensued. After the large, burly Lutie banned Moore, knocked him down, and forced him off the property at gunpoint, the breeder shot through a door, striking Lutie in the chest. Moore turned himself in to the police. Surprisingly, Lutie recovered and no charges were ever filed.

Shortly after this, Lutie's wife (Mary Martin Anderson Clark) moved out, taking their three children with her. She eventually moved all the way to Paris, France (not Kentucky) to get away from him. Through the 1880s, Lutie continued to manage the track with great success, though he still continued to threaten folks at gunpoint. In spite of the financial success he brought to the track, his abrasive personality and the resulting negative publicity, alienated his Churchill relatives. Things became so bad with the family, that they finally fired him from most of his track duties, though he did remain as a presiding judge.

Two years later, with the stock market crash of 1893, Lutie was financially destroyed. He turned to the only thing he ever loved and knew: racing. Lutie managed to find work as a presiding judge at racetracks across the country. Unfortunately, his troubles did nothing to take the edge from his personality. He offended a Chicago bartender by calling all Chicagoans "thieves and liars," and an argument ensued. Not learning his lesson from the last time he was shot, he drew his gun on the bartender and forced him to apologize. The incident made newspapers in both Chicago and Louisville.

On April 22, 1899, at the age of 53, Lutie's fear of aging, poverty, and the isolation he'd brought on himself caused him to draw his gun once last time to shoot himself. He is buried beside his uncle John, Churchill, in Cave Hill Cemetery, a Victoria era National Cemetery and arboretum located in Louisville, Kentucky.

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