Grave Sightings: Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr.

Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt / Stacy Conradt

While we may have William Clark to thank for mapping the Western half of the United States, his grandson also contributed quite a bit to American culture—especially if you like horse racing.

Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. (his father was named after William's Clark’s expedition partner) was not quite 6 years old when his mother died. Afterwards, the elder Meriwether Lewis Clark sent Jr., whom they called "Lutie," to live with his aunt in Louisville, Kentucky. As one of the founding families of Kentucky, his mother’s side of the family was wealthy, and they introduced him to the world of horse breeding. In 1872, Lutie attended the Epsom Derby in England—and a light bulb went off in his head. Why couldn’t he create a horse racing event in Kentucky?

When Clark returned home the following year, his uncles, John and Henry Churchill, leased him 80 acres of land. He raised additional money for the project by selling memberships for $100 each. The steep price didn’t stop 320 people from ponying up.

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The Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park officially opened in 1875, but no one called it that. Knowing where the land had come from, everyone referred to the new track as Churchill Downs. (Its name wasn’t officially changed until 1937, however.) By 1886, The New York Times was calling it "the greatest annual event of the American turf."

Sadly, Clark’s good fortune wouldn’t last. Angered by the lack of bookmakers—they had been locked out over a contract dispute—millionaire and Thoroughbred breeder James Ben Ali Haggin boycotted the Downs later in 1886 and took a bunch of his rich friends with him. While the boycott wasn't enough to close the track, it did harm its prestige—just four horses competed in the Derby in 1891, and only three in 1892.

To make matters worse, Clark lost big in the stock market crash of 1893. Upon selling the Louisville Jockey Club in 1894, he said, "I could wish nothing worse for my worst enemy than that he should become my successor and contend with all that I have contended with."

Stacy Conradt

On April 22, 1899, the 53-year-old Churchill Downs founder was found dead in a hotel room in Memphis, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Clark's body was returned to Louisville, where he was buried at Cave Hill Cemetery next to one of the men who had helped him make his dream a reality—his uncle, John.

Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.