Go West, Young Chump! - Part 1

-- Thursday, June 17 - Doncaster Ranch, Twin Bridges, MT --

Distance: 543.6 miles
Drive time: 9.25 hours (Tour de France scoring)
Construction zones: 0
Authority vehicles spotted: 0
Dead deer: 1
Live deer: 4
Live coyotes: 1
Times lost: 0
International border crossings: 1
Continental Divide crossings: 2

Time was when there were racetracks in little towns all over the West. I'm sorry to say, this year there are at least two less running meets, namely Energy Downs in Gillette, WY, and Sandy Downs in Idaho Falls, ID, both staples on the paint horse racing circuit the past couple of years. Energy Downs I'd never been too sure about, but I'd been led to believe, right up to the last minute, that Sandy Downs would be running this year. Unfortunately, when I called from the folks' place in Montana, I was informed that if there was any racing at all this year at Sandy, it would just be the 4th of July, and that a hearing was being held on the issue that very day (Wed., 6/18).

This pretty much goofed up the carefully plotted schedule of this particular segment of the big McChump Tour, and I was forced to spend my time and tourist dollars in various Montana locales like the fine Derby Bar on Harrison Street in Butte, a horseracing bar if ever there was one, which is also the simulcast site for Butte if you should happen to be in Butte for any reason, and like a small but excellent bookstore in the gold rush town of Virginia City, and like the Street Dance in Billings which was quite an energetic affair, and like Opening Day for Great Falls' Pioneer League professional baseball team. Which meant I spent zero time and zero money in either Gillette or Idaho Falls. City fathers of those two sad burgs take note: No live race meet, no McChump tourist dollars. Your towns are LOSERS!

But still - this was a horse racing Tour, and I needed to find some horse racing stuff to do. Which brings us to Twin Bridges.

There was also a time when Montana was an important source of good race horses. Copper King Marcus Daly had a large ranch in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, and campaigned a large stable at Eastern tracks like Saratoga. A less well known "king", Noah Armstrong, also got into the thoroughbred horse business, and built a first class operation in the valley of the Jefferson River, one of the headwaters streams of the Missouri. The centerpiece of this operation was a huge, unique, 3 story circular barn, designed entirely by Mr. Armstrong.

In 1885, Mr. Armstrong sent his mare Interpose, by Intruder, to Illinois to be bred to the stallion Hyder Ali, and then had her shipped back to Montana and the circular barn. In 1886 she foaled a chestnut colt with white stockings on his hind legs, who grew up and was broken at the ranch, before being sent to Tennessee as a 2yo for further training as a race horse.

Just about a mile and a half north of Twin Bridges, just down the road from Robber's Roost where the Plummer gang hid out until the Vigilantes lynched the whole bunch in the winter of 1863, and maybe a quarter mile to the east of Montana route 41, the circular wooden barn still stands. I didn't try to drive onto the current ranch property to get a closer look, but rather just pulled over and stopped the car to take a look at the impressive structure, set at the edge of a quiet green meadow in which deer played, framed in the background by the still snow capped Tobacco Root Mountains.

This quiet valley and weatherbeaten round wooden barn is the birthplace of Spokane, Montana's winner of the 1889 Kentucky Derby, Clark Stakes, and American Derby, defeating Kentucky's much heralded superhorse of 1889, Proctor Knott, in all three contests, and in the process setting a record for the 1-1/2 mile Kentucky Derby that still stands.

Cruise ahead to Episode 6 of this epic saga


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