Commentary: Legend Of The Bitterroots

<i>By Morton Cathro</i> - For the first time in anyone's memory there'll be no horse racing this summer in Montana's beautiful Bitterroot Valley. And the good folks of Hamilton are, if not bitter, mighty unhappy.

By Morton Cathro

For the first time in anyone’s memory there’ll be no horse racing this summer at the Ravalli County Fair in Montana’s beautiful Bitterroot Valley. And the good folks of Hamilton (population 4,443) are, if not bitter, mighty unhappy.

“It’s caused a big fuss,” said horse lover Ida Rutledge of the decision by the Western Montana Fair board to cancel racing because the fair no longer can afford to fund insurance for jockeys. “People up here go to the fair mainly for the races,” she told me. “They know horses, and they know the history of the valley.”

That history goes back more than a hundred years, when an even greater cataclysmic event was reported thus in Hamilton’s weekly newspaper: “It seemed like a day of mourning, a time when the entire population of the city stood sorrowed, bowed at the funeral of their brightest hopes. The grand beauties were leaving the valley.”

Those grand beauties were trainloads of breeding and racing stock from the vast Bitter Root Stock Farm of “copper king” Marcus Daly, one of Montana’s—and racing’s—most influential men of the late 19th century. After Daly died, the trains, with 369 equine passengers, headed for New York and a January 1901 dispersal sale at Madison Square Garden.

Among the auctioned stock were the great Hamburg, and Daly’s favorite, Tammany, for whom he had built a brick stable complete with cork floors, velvet-lined stalls, and copper vases to hold fresh flowers. He dubbed it “Tammany’s Castle,” and it still stands in Hamilton today.

Daly originally had acquired Hamburg from another legendary Turfman, John Madden, after the colt’s sensational championship 2-year-old season of 1897. Daly presented Madden a check for $40,000 (a huge sum in those days), plus one silver dollar. Hamburg went on to become champion 3-year-old in Daly’s copper-and-green colors; Madden used his windfall to establish Hamburg Place, long part of Bluegrass lore.

Marcus Daly came to America from Ireland at age 15 to seek his fortune, eventually finding it in Montana after luckless stabs in the California goldfields. Poking through silver deposits in Butte, he unearthed veins of the ore that were to create his copper empire. He built a smelter (and a town around it) at nearby Anaconda, then cast his gaze westward 40 miles to the high mountain valley of the Bitterroot Range along the Continental Divide.

There, he reasoned, would be the ideal spot to raise Thoroughbreds. After building a sawmill and the town of Hamilton around it, he proceeded in the late 1880s to develop 22,000 lush acres into one of the grandest racehorse nurseries America has ever seen, encompassing three training tracks and upwards of 1,200 horses. He raced his stock at tracks he built at Butte and Anaconda, and sent his best runners east to capture numerous rich stakes.

Today, the old Daly acreage is fast disappearing, gobbled up by luxury home developers to the dismay of nostalgic oldtimers. But the Daly Mansion, remodeled and enlarged by Daly’s widow, still stands—a state landmark and National Historic Site and the biggest residence in Montana. Every year on the first Saturday in May, the Georgian Revival masterpiece (25 bedrooms, 15 baths, seven fireplaces) is the site of a public Kentucky Derby party, complete with mint juleps, wagering, and Montana belles in wide-brimmed millinery.

The other Daly legacy still standing, the aforementioned Tammany’s Castle, is the next subject Ida Rutledge, whose passion is landscape painting, plans to tackle. Fearful the stable may fall victim to developers, she thinks it should at least be preserved on canvas. Despite the many blue ribbons she’s won, this Grandma Moses of the Bitterroots, now 89, modestly brushes aside compliments on the professional quality of her art. “The only commissions I get,” she said with a laugh, “come from my children and grandchildren.”

Ironically, the greatest legacy Marcus Daly bequeathed to racing was a champion colt he never lived to see—or own. He had arranged the overseas breeding of his mare Optime (by Orme) to Epsom Derby winner Melton. Optime sailed in utero to America, but Daly died before she dropped her foal.

Racing in the colors of James R. Keene, the colt, Sysonby, was one of the swiftest runners the Turf has ever seen. He won 14 of 15 starts and is enshrined in racing’s Hall of Fame.

And such is the bittersweet finale to the Legend of the Bitterroots.

Morton Cathro is an award-winning California newsman, now retired.