A Tale of Two Farms
|By Quick, Brandon|
The white four-board fences and rolling pastures make Calumet one of the most idyllic and recognizable landmarks in horse country. Those red gates are full of symbolism and history. As they swing open, the pages of the already well-documented narrative begin to turn. Remnants of success and scandal cloak themselves in the general aesthetics of the place. But on a cold February afternoon, a new chapter from that narrative is being written - the renaissance.
Breeding season is in and that makes Calumet farm manager
What emerges instead is Half-A-Bastard, a crude but oddly affectionate name for Calumet's "teaser" horse. The teaser's job is a thankless one that involves preparing a mare in heat for the duties of the actual stallion. "Half" prances into the breeding shed wearing a strategically placed black apron to prevent him from actually consummating the relationship. His date is with a magnificent-looking gray mare named Inspired Exchange - ironic, I think, because there's nothing particularly inspiring about the impending exchange. The four-year-old great-granddaughter of Northern Dancer and Seeking the Gold is making her initial foray into the adventures of breeding after finishing her race career in October. Half's job today is to "jump" the filly to ensure she reacts accordingly before her appointment with Calumet stallion Oxbow the next morning. Ever the professional and gentleman, Half sniffs her flanks approvingly and raises himself to his hind legs. The mare whinnies in surprise and Kane nods in approval. She'll meet the better-pedigreed Oxbow at sunrise.
It was Oxbow's upset gate-to-wire Preakness victory over Orb last May that signified Calumet's return as a major breeding operation. The farm had been established in 1924 for harness-racing Standardbreds by
It's what happened in the 45 years separating
As it turned out, grandmother knew best. Lundy began a spending spree, eager to stamp himself as a power player. There was the purchase of a private jet and massive, unnecessary upgrades to the farm. As the Thoroughbred market began to decline in the mid-'80s, Calumet's once impeccable financial standing was as distant as Citation's and Whirlaway's dominance. When Lundy began to take out loans, local bankers were easily duped into believing Calumet had assets to spare. In reality, Calumet was barely managing to stay afloat on the strength of a single asset: Alydar.
The chestnut colt, whose lineage included major sires Native Dancer, Nasrullah and the aforementioned Bull Lea, had become one of the premier stallions of his generation, and Lundy attempted to leverage him in any way possible. When repaying loans became a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul to pay Mary, local banks got wise and shut the spigot.
The farm held two life-insurance policies on Alydar - one from
Kane drives me around the farm in a red pickup bearing the Calumet logo on the door. The place is sprawling and Kane knows what's going on in every barn. On our way to a place Kane calls the "upper training barn," his cell phone rings. It's Calumet boss
Once inside the upper training barn, I feel overwhelmed by deja vu. "Scenes from Seabiscuit were shot in here," Kane explains. The long shedrows and the abundance of natural light give the barn a grand feel befitting of, well, a
The real Seabiscuit once resided just outside
Just outside Sams' office window, Secretariat is buried whole - a high honor bestowed upon great racehorses. The headstone marking his grave is small and simple, in keeping with the rest of the horses buried there, but incongruous with the greatness of their careers. Such names as Pulpit, Swale, Mr. Prospector and Nijinsky II form a veritable who's who of racing and breeding fame.
On a sunny but oppressively cold morning, Claiborne stallion associate
Niehaus is a human racing and pedigree encyclopedia, rattling off specific races and lineages with absurd rapidity. As he recites and segues, he rattles the gate of a paddock and signals for a bay horse maybe 20 yards away. The horse sports a splashy white blaze and pricks his ears before ambling toward us.
His progeny, including European champion Declaration of War, have proven to be high-class, versatile and fast runners. As a result, he gets only the best mares.
As it turns out, the whinny comes from Blame, the only horse
If Blame is as human as he seems, let's hope he isn't the self-aware type. Despite the brilliance of his career, the aptly named horse was viewed as something of a spoiler by the legions of
"Who is that guy," I ask as a slender, sleek-looking horse catches my attention.
"That's Orb," Niehaus says with nonchalance.
"You mean, just the Derby winner last year?" I ask.
Niehaus sees my point and manages a laugh. "Yeah, nobody important," he says.
I've seen a few Derby winners in person, even put my hands on some, but never one so closely removed from his greatest triumph. Orb is more playful and leaner than the other stallions, noticeably devoid of the thick middle and neck that older stallions develop as their exercise routines decrease and calories increase. In other words, he looks more than capable of still kicking a little butt on the track if he had to. Orb grew up on the farm with his mother,
Back at Calumet, the physical reminders of success are everywhere, but so, too, are the reminders of its failures. Among
But it's the stallion barn that's the most telling tangible artifact. When successful, it housed the murderers' row of Thoroughbred racehorses. When unsuccessful, it might only have housed a murder. Out of respect, and perhaps sympathy, Alydar's old stall has never been home to another horse; the brass nameplate on the door bears his name and the names of his Calumet predecessors who once occupied the infamous quarters. In the years that followed his death, an F.B.I. investigation, a book and enough mainstream-media interest on the subject left few believers that Alydar's death was an accident. Lundy had a clear motive. Wild Ride's Auerbach would later say that Alydar was more like "a maxed-out credit card" than a "golden goose" for Lundy at the time of the horse's fatal leg fracture.
There were other circumstantial factors pointing toward murder. A devoted night watchman was asked to take the night off. X-rays of the broken leg were inexplicably removed from Calumet's files. Insurance investigators arriving the next morning after the accident were surprised to see the stall swept and cleaned. The two bolts that held the roller of the door in place were already replaced. A farm foreman and Alydar's former trainer,
Down the shedrow, a mare named Terrify delivered a filly by Calumet stallion Aikenite on
As noted historian
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