The mercurial scion of two prominent American families, Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. traveled to Europe in 1872, and came back with a plan. He would build a track where he could mount a spectacular horseracing event, like the ones he had seen in England and France during his travels. His efforts—plus a lot of help from his wealthy uncles, John and Henry Churchill—built the Louisville track now known as Churchill Downs, home to the nation’s longest running sporting event and the first leg of racing’s prestigious Triple Crown. As the annual running of the Kentucky Derby approaches, take a look back at the life of the man behind the famous “Run for the Roses.”

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1846, Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. spent much of his early childhood in St. Louis, where his father, the son of explorer (and first territorial governor of Missouri) William Clark, worked as an architect. Like his father, Lewis (“Lutie” for short) was named for Meriwether Lewis, his grandfather’s old friend and fellow explorer of the Western frontier.

Shortly after giving birth to her seventh child, his mother died, and Lutie went back to Louisville to live on her family’s estate. As his two bachelor uncles, John and Henry Churchill, helped raise the boy, they passed along the family’s passion for thoroughbred horse racing. (Clark’s maternal grandfather, Samuel Churchill, had helped found the Oakland Race Course in Louisville in the 1830s.)

In his late twenties, newly married, Lutie Clark traveled to Europe, where he attended England’s Epsom Derby and hobknobbed with members of the French Jockey Club, founders of another high-profile race, the Grand Prix de Paris Longchamps. By the time he returned from abroad in 1873, he was determined to start a similar horseracing spectacle at home, and he enlisted John and Henry Churchill to help.

Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr.
Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr.

The Churchills were one of Kentucky’s first families, having purchased 300 acres of land there back in 1785. His uncles gave Clark some of the land to build a track, and helped organize local horseracing fans with money (including bankers, hotel and streetcar company owners, large farmers and whiskey makers) into the Louisville Jockey Club. As Lynn S. Renau recorded in her book “Jockeys, Belles and Bluegrass Kings” (later cited by Call of the Derby Post), the Jockey Club raised some $32,000 for the building of the track by selling shares of stock at $100 a pop.

The new track opened to the public on May 17, 1875. Opening events included the running of the first-ever Kentucky Derby, as 15 three-year-old thoroughbred horses raced 1½ miles in front of a crowd of some 10,000. A horse named Aristides emerged victorious. Interestingly, the now-famous race wasn’t even the main event that day: Two other races, the Louisville Cup and the Gentlemen’s Cup Race, took top billing.

As the track’s manager, Clark helped set some of the racing rules and regulations that remain in place today. He presided over the first American Turf Congress, held in a Louisville hotel, and pioneered the stakes system on which today’s Breeder’s Cup is based.

One of the most influential ideas Clark brought over from Europe was pari-mutuel betting, an innovative system that eliminated bookmaking from the horseracing equation. Predictably, this system didn’t sit well with bookmakers, who later demanded Clark remove the pari-mutuel machines from the track. (According ) to the official Kentucky Derby website, the machines were restored in 1908, and bookmaking was outlawed.) For his part, Clark famously claimed he didn’t bet, and said his only Derby wager was the price of a new hat.

Despite his talents as a manager, Clark’s arrogance and brutal temper made him few friends in the local racing community, and many enemies—including one prominent horse breeder who shot Clark in the chest during a particularly heated argument. Locals got back at Clark for his bad attitude by calling the track “Churchill’s downs,” a reference from English racing, as well as a reminder of who really controlled things at the Louisville Jockey Club. The name stuck, and Churchill Downs became the track’s official moniker.

Churchill Downs, c. 1900.
Churchill Downs, c. 1900.

Clark was obsessed with his work, and by 1886 had separated from his wife, Mary, who took their three children to live with his uncle, John Churchill. In late 1890, 71-year-old John married a much younger woman, and the birth of their son in 1891 effectively eliminated the chance that Clark would inherit any of the land housing Churchill Downs. John’s will, rewritten in 1891, left some land to Clark and his family, but made it clear his mercurial nephew would have no part of the track itself.

By 1897, when John Churchill died, Lutie Clark had been reduced to serving as steward of the track whose existence he first envisioned 15 years earlier. Known to gamble on the stock market, Clark likely lost big in the crash of 1893, which shut down the New York Stock Exchange for 10 days. After that, he supported himself by traveling around the country serving as steward at other tracks. While working at a track in Chicago, Clark pulled a gun on a bartender who had objected to Clark’s labeling of Chicagoans as “thieves and liars,” forcing the man to apologize. The incident made headlines in Chicago and back in Kentucky, further alienating his relatives.

The story of Churchill Downs’ founder has a sad end: On April 22, 1899, just days before the 25th running of the Kentucky Derby, Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. committed suicide. He was 53 years old.

Over the years, the track and the race Clark helped make into a reality has grown into a spectacle the likes of which he might never have imagined. Today, the Kentucky Derby is the longest-running sporting event in the nation, having continued uninterrupted ever since its debut in 1875—including during the Great Depression and two World Wars. Some 167,227 people attended last year’s “Run of the Roses,” representing the second largest crowd in Derby history (just under the previous year’s record of 170,513).