This is an original story I researched and wrote a while ago. I sent it to the Blood Horse for publication and they agreed to publish it. Unfortunately, they only offered me $100 for the piece. I turned it down. So instead of publishing it for $100 and letting thousands read it, I’m publishing it for free for maybe dozens to read. Given that, I’m asking that if you read it, pass it along so that it gets as wide a distribution as possible.
Mollie and Tenbrooks
By Rich Halvey
“Run O Molly run, run O Molly run
Tenbrooks gonna beat you to the bright shinin’ sun.
To the bright shinin’ sun, O Lord, to the bright shinin’ sun”
All things considered, 1878 was not history’s most exciting year. Thomas Alva Edison patented the phonograph, prompting the first known occurrence of a parent saying, “You call that music? In my day, we had real music!” Who can forget that 1878 was one of the numerous years when Greece declared war on Turkey. It was also the year of the first of three assassination attempts on Italian king Umberto I; the anarchists may not have been great shots, but they were persistent.
And, oh yeah, it was the year of the Mollie McCarthy/Ten Broeck match race.
In 1878 three sports captured the imagination of the American public. Horse racing dominated the sporting news of the time, exploding in popularity through the last half of the 1800’s until by 1890 there were 314 tracks in operation. Boxing was a distant second followed by the growing sport of baseball. Football was popular on college campuses, but the formation of professional teams with paid players was over two decades away, and nearly half a century from becoming the respectable National Football League. Basketball would not even be invented until 1891. Horse racing all but stood alone atop the 19th century sports world.
The 1870s were a time of change in American racing. Up until that decade, most racing consisted of horses going long distances two- to five-times in a day. The famous 1823 race between American Eclipse and Henry, so beautifully chronicled by John Eisenberg in his book The Great Match Race, was typical of the time, with the horses having to win two-out-of-three four-mile heats. By the middle of the century, horses such as Lexington, perhaps the greatest of the so-called four-milers, were heroes on the track and favorites in the breeding shed.
While the English had all but abandoned the multiple-heat, long-distance race by 1870 in favor of single-heat “sprint” races, change was more gradual in America. Still, the movement toward what we today think of as the prototypical racehorse—fast-breaking and hard-running—was inexorable and irresistible. By 1880, the era of the four-milers was over, and racing took the shape modern fans would recognize.
MERIWETHER LEWIS CLARK
The track we know today as Churchill Downs was the brainchild of Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., nicknamed Lutie, grandson of the former Missouri governor and famed explorer General William Clark and the great nephew of Louisville founder George Rogers Clark. When his father, Meriwether Lewis Clark, Sr., married Abigail Prather Churchill, the Clark’s gained a connection to one of Kentucky’s first families.
Armistead Churchill, Jr. brought his family to Louisville in 1787, in the process changing the family name from Churchhill to the current well known spelling. He purchased 300 acres of land, part of which included the grounds on which Churchill Downs now sits.
Lutie Clark was only six when his mother died and his bereaved father sent him to live with his aunt and her two sons, John and Henry Churchill, holders of most of the original Churchill property. It was during his time with the Churchills that Lutie developed a taste for custom made suits, good food, and of course horse racing.
By his mid-twenties, Lutie Clark’s love of excess showed both in his physical girth and his personality. He was described as a great mustachioed bear of a man, arrogant, quarrelsome and quick-tempered, traits that would eventually cost him his friends, family and the track he helped start.
In 1873 the 27 year-old Clark returned from a trip to Europe with grand ideas about how to build a racetrack and eliminate the traditional bookmaker in favor of French pari-mutuel (literally “betting between the patrons”) machines. The idea behind pari-mutuel betting was ingenious. Rather than the track or the bookmaker accepting the full risk of a wager, the track would simply act as the “broker,” essentially creating a betting pool of wagers and distributing payoffs to the winners for a fixed fee per wager. In this way the patrons would decide the “odds” of each entrant and the track was completely removed from any financial interest in the outcome. Whether the favorite or the longest shot won the race, the track collected exactly the same amount of money. In theory, this gave them a powerful incentive to maintain the integrity of racing.
Unfortunately, despite Clark’s best efforts, the French machines never caught on. It would be decades before the mechanical version of the automated tote machine fully replaced the on-track auction pools and bookmakers. As was indicative of the time, living, breathing beings (like men and horses) were almost always trusted more than cold, heartless machines, even if those living beings were bookmakers—remember the famous tale of John Henry from the 1800s in which a legendary steel driver outperformed a steam-powered hammer?
With the backing and land donation of the Churchills, Lutie got the track built, and on May 17, 1875, the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association opened its doors to the public. During the spring and fall the facility was to be devoted to racing, while the rest of the year it was available for carriage riding, hence the Driving Park Association part of the name.
The Churchills happily allowed Lutie Clark to manage the racetrack and in the early years the track did reasonably well, although never turning a profit. Lutie flung himself into his racetrack endeavors to the point of obsession, but the irascible and overly opinionated Clark managed to alienate almost everyone he came in contact with, from the horsemen to the press to each member of his family, one by one. In one well-known incident, Clark refused the prominent breeder, T.G. Moore permission to race at the track, claiming Moore was behind on the payment of entry fees. Moore demanded an apology, Clark refused, and when Moore would not leave the premises, Clark drew a gun on him and ordered him off. Moore left but only to get a gun and shoot Clark through his office door, hitting Clark in the chest but not wounding him mortally. As the years went on there were more and more stories of Lutie Clark’s embarrassments, eventually using up all the patience left in John and Henry Churchill.
The story of how the track came to be known as Churchill Downs also lay in the contempt generated for Lutie. Many locals called the track “Churchill’s downs” as a way of reminding Lutie who was really in control of the track. It became known informally as Churchill Downs in 1883, when reporters picked up on the name. Within a few years, everyone referred to the track as Churchill Downs, but it wasn’t until 1937 that the facility was formally incorporated with that name.
Lutie Clark’s original plan was to hold three major races each year modeled after the Epsom Derby, the Oaks and the St. Ledger Stakes. The three races would be called the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, still run on the Friday before the Derby, and the eponymously named Clark Stakes, still run during the fall meet at Churchill. While the Kentucky Derby was one of four races carded for that first race day in May (although not the first Saturday), two other races probably provided more of a draw for the 12,000 in attendance: the Louisville Cup and the Gentleman’s Cup Race. Clark’s honored guests watched the races from the clubhouse, sipping mint juleps (a drink often reported as being invented by Lutie Clark) and listening to Strauss waltzes.
In 1875, top-flight 3-year-old racing was considered something of a novelty, and it would be years before the Kentucky Derby would attain status as America’s premier horse race. Still, when the fine racehorse Aristides beat fourteen other 3-year-olds to win the mile-and-a-half Derby in record time, the crowd was appropriately enthusiastic.
Despite a popular desire to assume that the impact of the Derby on American racing was large from its first running, it was not the early Derbys that certified Churchill Downs as one of the elite tracks in America. That would come three years later on July 4, 1878, when Ten Broeck, a horse that had finished fifth behind Aristides in the inaugural Derby, met Mollie McCarthy (sometimes spelled as McCarty) in one of the very last of the four-mile marathons.
Ten Broeck was a regally bred bay stallion by the British import sire Phaeton (who was by Baron de Rothschild’s well-known stallion King Tom) out of the mare Fanny Holton. A look at Fanny Holton’s pedigree reveals not only the prepotent sire Lexington, but also the eventually memorialized Henry, the loser of the “Great Match Race.” Fanny Holton is generally recognized as one of Lexington’s most influential daughters.
Ten Broeck was a useful horse at age three, having defeated Aristides in the Phoenix Stakes before faltering in the Derby. That year, he won five of nine races. By the time Ten Broeck turned four, he had become an eye-catching racehorse off the track and a superstar on the track. In 1876, Ten Broeck won seven of the eight races he entered and established a new record for the four-mile distance. Next year, at the age of five, he won nine of the ten events he entered, with his only defeat coming at the hands of Hall of Fame horse Parole (owned by tobacco king Pierre Lorillard) in the Baltimore Special at Pimlico. This race also featured one of Lexington’s last sons—Tom Ochiltree, the 1875 Preakness winner—and was somewhat artificially billed as a battle of East versus West, even though all three horses were Eastern-bred. In an action that would be unbelievable today, Congress actually adjourned to allow the Senators and Congressmen to attend the event.
After Ten Broeck’s 5-year-old season, his owner, Frank Harper, considered retiring him to stud duty. After all, he had no equal in the best two-of-three four-mile heats. Fortunately for racing, and especially Churchill Downs, Harper chose to give Ten Broeck two more races in 1878. One would be the famous match race against Mollie McCarthy.
The true history and pedigree of Mollie McCarthy is difficult to track due to the great number of fillies and mares of the same name around that time. Most accounts have her foaled in 1873, making her a year younger than Ten Broeck. While some sources suggest Mollie was bred in Tennessee, she was almost certainly born in California, the certain daughter of the top California broodmare Hennie Farrow and the likely daughter of the stallion Monday (a son of Colton that was a lesser son of Lexington). Mollie McCarthy’s breeder, Adolph Maillard, had brought Hennie Farrow, Monday, and a sire named Young Eclipse, originally purchased by Richard Ten Broeck, to California. In 1873, all of these horses were firmly entrenched in Marin County California.
Mollie quickly established herself as a top-flight racehorse. She won her only start as a 2-year-old and six consecutive races throughout her 3-year-old season. She continued defeating all comers during her 4-year-old season, winning five more races. When she defeated a horse named Jake at the start of her 5-year-old campaign, despite conceding fourteen pounds, it became clear that there were no horses left in California to beat. Mollie’s owner, Theodore Winters, sold her to Lucky Baldwin, who decided it was time for Mollie to head East to take on the horse considered the best in training—Ten Broeck.
Elias Jackson Baldwin left his mark all over California. He was swept to California in 1853, like thousands of others in search of gold. He survived losing his way and Indian attacks and finally arrived in San Francisco with little more than the rags on his back. Once he arrived he realized his fortune lay in selling food, supplies and accommodations, not panning Sutter’s Creek. Seven years later he entered the realm of the truly wealthy by playing the volatile silver market in Nevada.
Although Baldwin always seemed to live a charmed existence, by most accounts he earned the moniker “Lucky” a few years after cashing in on the Comstock lode. He left San Francisco to hunt elephants in India, instructing his broker to sell his stocks if they fell below a certain level. The stocks fell, but his broker did not have access to the certificates in his safe and they were never sold. Soon after, the stocks rebounded and Baldwin reaped a multi-million dollar windfall. Baldwin’s good fortune made him one of the richest men in California, and in 1875 he moved to Southern California, purchasing Rancho Santa Anita in the San Gabriel Valley for the extraordinary price of $200,000, and three years later the undefeated Mollie McCarthy.
For a while Baldwin’s luck continued and his wealth grew. Rancho Santa Anita became a showpiece featuring high quality thoroughbreds, eventually including three Kentucky Derby winners. Over time he subdivided the property, creating the communities of Arcadia (where Santa Anita Race Track is located), Sierra Madre, and Monrovia.
Despite its early success, Churchill Downs had not yet achieved the status of some of the more famous tracks in New York and Maryland, and Lutie Clark was looking for an opportunity to add Churchill to the short list of elite racing places.
Frank Harper apparently could not bear the thought of retiring Ten Broeck to stud so soon and had already raced him earlier in the year. Lutie Clark knew that Ten Broeck was still the biggest draw in racing and approached Harper about one more race with an undefeated mare from California. Since Ten Broeck had no real competition left in the east, Harper jumped at the chance. Lucky Baldwin had already committed to move Mollie McCarthy eastward, and Lutie Clark quickly convinced Baldwin that by meeting Ten Broeck he would be part of the “race of the century.” Each side agreed to put up $5,000, an amount that would be worth about $125,000 today. On April 3, 1878, The New York Times published a small piece on the upcoming race:
“Col. M. Lewis Clark, Jr., President of the Louisville Jockey Club, has perfected arrangements by which Ten Broeck and Mollie McCarthy are to run four-mile heats at Louisville, July 4 next, for the sum of $10,000. Two or three other races will be given at the same time. The owner of Mollie McCarthy thinks she can beat any horse in the country. The mare will be brought from California to Louisville in Budd Doble’s car, which has been chartered for the round trip, and will probably arrive here about the first of May to prepare for the contest. Ten Broeck was never in better condition than at present.”
On that same train were a thousand Californians with their life savings in their pockets, determined to match every dollar the Kentuckians wished to put up on their champion.
Despite a tendency then, just as now, to overhype major sporting events, the Ten Broeck/Mollie McCarthy race had every right to be considered one of the two or three “races of the century.” It was the marquee event of the biggest sport in the country, and had all of the elements of drama a major event demands: the veteran Eastern horse, a champion in every respect, versus an undefeated mare with a larger-than-life owner from upstart California. Long before the Seabiscuit/War Admiral race was hyped as racing royalty against the common horse, Ten Broeck and Mollie McCarthy represented that scenario. And while it may not have been clear to everyone at the time, this match race turned out to be the last of the great four-mile events. It was the end of an era.
The event was as eagerly anticipated as any contest of the time could have been. Lutie Clark and the Churchills managed to arrange the event that would turn the track into the home of the greatest racehorse of the day, or at least that day.
On July 4, the weather was typically Southern, sunny, hot and humid. However, rain the day before had turned the track heavy and sticky. The writer L.S. Hardin described the track this way.
“It rained torrents for hours the night before the race. When I reached the track the next morning, about 9 o’clock, the course looked as though it had been prepared for aquatic sports. As the track sloped to the rail, it was at that point, of course, deeper in water than farther out, where it was higher. The sun was so hot that horses standing idle in the field were wet with perspiration. This heat dried the track rapidly, but still left it about impossible for a horse to run, on an average, closer than six feet from the rail.”
People started arriving at the track early in the morning, and the heavy stream of patrons did not abate until well after the first race of the day. The New York Times described the streets as “well-nigh impassable.” Still, that many people for a sporting event in 1878 was phenomenal and clearly pointed to the importance of the race. It was among the largest crowds ever to attend a single sporting event up to that date.
Train travel in the 1800s was generally arduous, especially along the transcontinental line that had been completed only a short nine years earlier. Despite Mollie’s fine accommodations, the trip was sure to take something out of her.
When it was time for the first heat, Mollie, the challenger, made the first appearance, still covered in her white sheet. L.S. Hardin described her as “in perfect flesh for a long run,” although other accounts more precisely suggested she was carrying some excess flesh. Her connections dismissed that as a concern, indicating she ran better with some weight to spare. Hardin also mentioned Mollie was moving “awkwardly” with her hind legs, hinting at some lack of racing condition, a natural suspicion after such a lengthy train trip. With the help of the Californians in attendance, she was given a “fair round of applause.”
Ten Broeck emerged on the opposite side of the track from Mollie and was given thunderous recognition. Ten Broeck stripped his covering first and immediately provided an animated display of readiness. A much later account of the race suggested that Ten Broeck was sweaty and glassy-eyed, evidence that he had been drugged. However, by most accounts he was described as fit and well-conditioned. Hardin proclaimed him in “perfect condition for a long race.”
Ten Broeck’s regular rider was an ex-slave named William Walker. In the 1800s, most of the best jockeys were African-American, and Walker was among the best of them all. He rode Baden Baden to victory in the 1877 Derby and was five times the leading rider at Churchill Downs. He was, by all accounts, a gentleman in every respect and a perfect match for Ten Broeck.
Although the race was scheduled as a best two-out-of-three, most newspaper reports only describe one heat. Newspaper accounts of the time were a combination of the facts along with the embellishments of the turf writers who could turn a walkover into a race of riveting excitement. The accounts of the heat reflected this style in their descriptions, but not in the outcome. Some accounts had Ten Broeck leading the entire heat over the overmatched Molly; others noted Molly ran easily for the first two miles, keeping at least a head in front of the tightly restrained Ten Broeck. L.S. Hardin said that for the first two and a half miles the race was “as rapid and hotly contested as man ever witnessed,” and the fractional times bear him out, with the first mile run a tick under 1:50 and the second mile run a tick over 1:55. This was of no concern to Frank Harper who believed his horse had limitless bottom. He had instructed jockey Walker to not only beat the upstart filly, but to do so decisively.
On a track that was deep and sticky and on a day that was like nothing Mollie had ever seen in Northern California, the first two miles were killing. But two miles was as much as Molly had left in her. By the time they entered the third mile, jockey Walker began to let Ten Broeck roll, opening somewhere between five and ten lengths by the time the third mile was completed. Whether or not Molly was defeated psychologically by the powerful run of Ten Broeck can never be known, but she was clearly defeated physically. The question was not whether Ten Broeck would win, but by how much.
Lutie Clark sent a letter to the editor of the Herald, describing the race this way.
“The day was intensely hot and close and the track very heavy. The mare set a pace to kill the big horse, both running about thirty or forty feet from the pole. After going two and a half miles the mare began to weaken, and when passing the stand the third time she was very much distressed.”
As the horses began the fourth and final mile, one of the attendees, the famed detective Yankee Bligh, the man who relentlessly pursued the James gang, was purported to shout, “One thousand Mollie does not pass under the wire again.” One patriotic Californian took him up on the bet, but at the quarter-pole, the magnificent Mollie threw up her tail, gave up the race, and with that, the money of her backers. Ten Broeck galloped leisurely to the wire in the very slow time of 8:19 3/4. Mollie McCarthy, the great hope of her sex and western racing, was taken to the stable area, exhausted and in physical distress. Only the fine work of her veterinarians kept the day from proving an even greater disaster for Lucky Baldwin and his horse.
Accounts of Ten Broeck’s condition after the race varied. While he seemed to be blowing hard as would be expected, there were comments on the lack of sweat on Ten Broeck, lending small credibility to the rumor he had been drugged or even poisoned. However that was countered by reports that stated that an hour after the race Ten Broeck looked fine in his stall, like he could have run another heat.
Even after the race was over, some of Mollie’s supporters refused to acknowledge the superiority of Ten Broeck. Whether it was true or not, later writings about Mollie McCarthy would opine that she detested the muddy going and the unfamiliar, extreme combination of heat and humidity, although a killing pace on a deep track on a hellish day would have challenged any horse.
The Kentucky crowd was ecstatic at the success of the local hero. Ten Broeck was retired after the race to stud duty, where he achieved moderate, but not outstanding, success. A little more than a hundred years later, Ten Broeck was inducted into the racing Hall of Fame. Mollie McCarthy lost her next start in the Minneapolis Cup, but in 1879, her last year of racing, she won the prestigious Garden City Cup in Chicago and a purse race in San Francisco. She retired and became a broodmare. Like Ten Broeck, her foals enjoyed only moderate success on the track, although her female progeny did very well when they were retired to breed. The era of the four-milers ended with one of the greatest racing spectacles of the nineteenth century, and resulted in the emergence of Churchill Downs as one of the cathedrals of American racing.
While Lutie Clark was strongly opposed to track officials (and newspapermen) gambling on the races, he had no problem gambling on the stock market. In 1893 when the economy crashed and the New York Stock Exchange closed for ten days, Clark lost almost his entire fortune. His wife had left him to move to Paris with their son John Henry Churchill Clark. The Churchill brothers had become fed up with his antics, and by 1891 relieved him of almost all his duties at the track. For a while he worked as a presiding judge at racetracks around the country, but in April 1899, all but broke, fearful of growing senile and depressed at his isolation from his family he committed suicide in Memphis, Tennessee.
During the 1890’s the fortunes of Lucky Baldwin evaporated. He was an incurable philanderer, fighting off numerous lawsuits from an unending string of mistresses and lovers, and even surviving two shootings. Having lost most of his fortune, Baldwin headed to Alaska to try to cash in on yet another gold rush, but returned to Santa Anita empty handed. He maintained some involvement with horse racing but died in March 1909, still working on amassing another fortune. However, even in death his luck held for his heirs when a worthless piece of property he owned produced the Montebello Oil Fields, one of the biggest finds in the West.
Billy Walker, Ten Broeck’s jockey, had a very successful career after he stopped riding. He worked as a consultant and trainer and was considered the country’s foremost expert on lineage and breeding. He spent his final years as a workout clocker at his beloved Churchill Downs, dying in 1933 at the age of 72.
Churchill Downs succeeded in ways not even Lutie Clark could have imagined. In the early 1890’s the track was still struggling financially and William F. Schulte took over as president. Schulte oversaw the construction of a new grandstand with a set of twin spires on the roof. Those twin spires gave the track, and the Kentucky Derby, the most iconic architectural symbol in racing.
Still the track failed to turn a profit and in 1902 a group headed by Louisville mayor Charles Grainger, Charlie Price and Matt J. Winn agreed to overtake the operation. It was under the leadership of this group that the track began to prosper and the Kentucky Derby began to emerge as the preeminent three year-old race in America. In 1937 the track finally incorporated under the name Churchill Downs and today remains one of the most successful and recognizable operations in the country.
As was common during that period, the match race between Mollie McCarthy and Ten Broeck was memorialized in song. While the actual songwriter is the subject of some dispute, there is no dispute that it was made a bluegrass standard by the legendary Bill Monroe. In 1947, Monroe used “Molly and Tenbrooks” to make the first known recording of a bluegrass song. Even today it is a standard at bluegrass festivals across the country, and recordings are easily found on the Internet.
The song sums up the story of the match race of the century.
Out in California, where Molly done as she pleased
Come back to old Kentucky, got beat with all ease
Beat with all ease, O Lord, beat with all ease
Beat with all ease by the last of the great four-milers.