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Approaching Lexington from the west by way of Versailles Road (U.S. 60) is to slip briefly into a fairy tale. An incongruence of suburban sprawl before you enter the city is bookended by a castle and Calumet Farm - each as fittingly regal as the other. In 1969, when Rex Martin started building the castle for his wife after being inspired by a European vacation, Calumet was a year removed from Forward Pass' Kentucky Derby win. It was the farm's eighth since 1941, effectively making Calumet the Roman Empire of Thoroughbred racing. By the mid-'70s, however, Martin's castle was crumbling along with Calumet's prestige.'
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 Eddie Kane a busy man. Kane, a Los Angeles transplant with a demeanor decidedly more Midwestern, is a polite, patient and pragmatic guy, greeting me warmly when I arrive. We walk through the stallion barns that once housed the most powerful roster of stallions anywhere in the world. Names like Whirlaway, Citation, Tim Tam and Alydar once called this place home. Full of wonderment, I halfway expect one of their ghosts to emerge from the shadows.
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 William Monroe Wright, who named it after his baking-powder company. When he died in 1931, his son Warren changed gears, caught Thoroughbred fever and made two major acquisitions: a 25 percent stake in powerhouse sire Blenheim II and full ownership of Bull Lea - two horses that quickly enriched the farm's bloodstock. In addition to the eight Derby winners, Calumet claimed two Triple Crowns in the 1940s with Whirlaway in '41 and Citation in '48. The aforementioned Forward Pass, awarded the '68 Derby win after Dancer's Image was disqualified, and Alydar carried the farm's colors through the '70s despite the latter narrowly losing all three 1978 Triple Crown races (and seven of 10 overall) to Affirmed. Oxbow marked Calumet's first victory in a Triple Crown race since Forward Pass.
It's what happened in the 45 years separating Forward Pass and Oxbow that became the focus of Ann Hagedorn Auerbach's book Wild Ride: The Rise and Tragic Fall of Calumet. The sordid and nefarious goings-on after a 1982 ownership change read like an episode of American Greed, replete with bankruptcy, scandal and possible murder. Despite Alydar's heroics on the 1978 Triple Crown trail, the '70s had been lean by Calumet standards under Gene and Warren Wright widow Lucille Markey. The decade that followed would prove nightmarish. When Gene Markey died in 1980, followed by his wife in '82, operational management of the farm fell to the eldest of the Wright heirs, granddaughter Lucille Cindy Wright, who had married a former farmhand named J.T. Lundy. According to Auerbach, before marrying Wright, Lundy once told a friend about his ambition to one day run Calumet. Lucille Markey was rumored to have disliked and distrusted Lundy so much she actually kept him from coming on the grounds.
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. So Lundy hooked up with renegade banker Frank Cihak of First City National Bank in Houston, setting the stage for an epic collapse. Cihak, a horse enthusiast looking for kickbacks from doing business with Lundy, provided separate loans of $50 million and $15 million to Calumet - still not enough to keep Calumet current on other payments.
The farm held two life-insurance policies on Alydar - one from Golden Eagle Insurance in California, the other from Lloyd's of London. When the former notified Lundy that its policy would not be renewed as of December 1990 for habitual late payment, the unthinkable happened. Alydar died after breaking a leg November 15, 1990, under dubious circumstances. Despite collecting more than $30 million in insurance cash, Calumet filed for bankruptcy in 1991 and Lundy resigned. The next year, the farm's famous devil's-red-and-blue racing silks were sold for $12,000 to a Brazilian buyer. In less than a decade on the job; Blood-Horse magazine reported, Lundy had taken Calumet from $93 million in assets to $165 million in debt.
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 Brad Kelley, a billionaire businessman and former major shareholder in Churchill Downs, who is originally from Bowling Green. (Oxbow raced under the black-with-gold-chevrons silks of Kelley's Bluegrass Hall Farm, now folded into Calumet.) By some accounts, Kelley is the fourth largest landowner in the United States. By all accounts, he avoids interviews and doesn't use email, although Kane later tells me Kelley will send texts. Calumet Investment Group, the consortium that leased the farm to Kelley, is Calumet's third owner (after the Calumet dispersal of the Lundy era, a trust established by Canadian Henryk de Kwiatkowski purchased the farm, saving it from liquidation). Kane and Kelley have an intense-sounding conversation that deals in part with Optimizer, a son of 2007 Breeders' Cup Turf winner English Channel and A.P. Indy daughter Indy Pick and one of the farm's better horses. The five-year-old, who ran in all three Triple Crown races in 2012 (finishing eighth in the Derby), is returning to the track after a break from racing, and they discuss his readiness for an upcoming stakes race at Santa Anita. Kane genuinely enjoys working for Kelley, calling him "driven" and a "great guy." To many others in central Kentucky, Kelley is a respected but enigmatic figure. He's willing to spend money, but his purchases are practical and prudent.
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 Hollywood film.
The real Seabiscuit once resided just outside Paris, Ky., at Claiborne Farm. Claiborne is about 25 miles from Calumet and is decidedly more conservative - both in appearance and history, but equally rich in tradition. In 1910, Arthur Boyd Hancock Sr. of Charlottesville, Va., founded Claiborne on inherited land and the farm has stayed in the family ever since, with A.B. "Bull" Hancock Jr. taking over in 1957 and his son Seth (famously depicted in the film Secretariat) taking charge in 1972. The main office looks more like a simple brick cottage. Inside, the carpeting is hunter green and probably a bit outdated. The wood-paneled walls are decorated with halters bearing the names of the farm's champions: Danzig and Damascus shine from the brass nameplates - reminding me of a fitting adage: Success breeds success.
Walker Hancock is a baby-faced 24-year-old and still looks a few years away from his first shave. As Seth's son, Walker represents the fourth generation and is heir apparent to Claiborne. We meet in the office of veteran bloodstock manager Bernie Sams. Sams strikes me as the kind of guy who could sell anything, the equine industry's Billy Mays. He's outspoken and friendly, but he defers most of my questions to Walker, the pedigreed understudy, who answers in brief but thoughtful bits: He comes off as humble, even a bit shy. When we delve into the topic of Claiborne's success, he candidly answers, "I had nothing to do with it; it's all about my father and his father." Any notion that Walker needs more seasoning can be offset with the reminder that his father was a year younger in 1973 when he successfully engineered the syndication of Secretariat, who stood at stud at Claiborne, for a then-record $6.8 million.
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 Jon Niehaus shows me around the grounds. All of the farm's stallions are out in their paddocks, unfazed by the weather as lingering steam rises from their coats. Some have already been to the breeding shed this morning. Some await an afternooner.
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. It's War Front, a solid but unspectacular racehorse who has quickly ascended into the ranks of elite stallions. This year's breeders wishing to send a mare to Claiborne's biggest gun will pay $150,000 for his services.
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. Zenyatta is currently carrying a War Front baby and is scheduled to be re-bred to him. - Success breeds success. War Front is a son of the wildly successful Claiborne stallion Danzig, who in 2008 became the first U.S. stallion to have his offspring reach 200 stakes wins. Behaviorally, Niehaus describes War Front as a "1,500-pound puppy dog." From an adjacent paddock another horse whinnies and War Front pricks his ears.
As it turns out, the whinny comes from Blame, the only horse Zenyatta never passed en route to infamously winning the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic. Bernie Sams swears that he watches Blame and War Front from his office window have regular meetings around 10:15 each morning. "I'd love to know what they talk about," he muses with an anthropomorphic seriousness not uncommon among people who work around horses.
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 Zenyatta fans disappointed in the outcome of the Breeders' Cup. Controversially, Zenyatta was awarded the 2010 Horse of the Year Eclipse despite the fact that both horses lost one race during the season with Blame winning the only head-to-head matchup. If it sounds absurd holding a grudge against a horse, how about sending one hate mail? Claiborne received it by the hundreds of pieces in the aftermath of the race. Sams - now half amused, half pissed off by the whole affair - reads a profanity-laced email he received. The opening sentence was by far the nicest: "Blame is a hack." Fortunately, Blame seems undaunted and more interested in the peppermints in Niehaus' jacket. Maybe the ultra-successful are more immune to criticism?
"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, Lady Liberty, representing the constant churn of successful Claiborne horses. From Orb's paddock, Arch, Blame's daddy, can be seen sunning himself and enjoying the simple pleasures of old age. Success breeds success.
Back at Calumet, the physical reminders of success are everywhere, but so, too, are the reminders of its failures. Among J.T. Lundy's first cosmetic moves, he installed those trademark red iron gates and shelled out a reported 12 grand a month for the repair, replacement and upkeep of those white four-board fences. A million went to a therapeutic equine swimming facility that now sits unused with its windows partially boarded. Another million went to an equine hospital on the grounds that Calumet currently only uses for storage, although the building still bears the veterinary medical insignia on its facing. It's the same building where renowned equine surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage attempted the futile surgery on Alydar's leg. On the second floor of the main offices once refurbished by Lundy, there's a sparsely used meeting room and a surprisingly modest corner office where, an anonymous source once told me, Lundy could sometimes be found eating ice cream and watching cartoons in his underwear. Apparently not all his hobbies were expensive.
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.
An MIT professor found that Alydar would have been incapable of injuring himself as suggested by Calumet and the veterinarians who cared for him after the trauma. Since the horse's fracture was a torquing injury - one characterized by twisting and turning - it was originally thought that he had kicked his stall door off the metal roller and subsequently caught his leg in the small gap created between the door and his stall. He must have panicked and broken the leg attempting to free the limb, the theory posited. But MIT'sGeorge Pratt visited the farm and devised an equation that concluded a horse could only generate a force of one-third the amount required to accomplish such a feat.
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, John Veitch, said Alydar had never been a kicker or difficult to manage. But in the end, judges ruled that there wasn't enough evidence to try Lundy in the case. He was instead sentenced to four years in prison for bank fraud and bribery related to the First City National dealings with Cihak.
Eddie Kane is, of course, aware of all the details and theories, but he doesn't offer an opinion. "You know, you'd hate to think they did anything like that," he says of the Alydar incident. Kane has a deep appreciation for the farm's history but doesn't dwell on the past or the negatives. Currently, Calumet owns 223 mares and 101 yearlings. The rise from the ashes starts with replenishing the bloodstock. As we tour more barns, the signs are evident: pregnant mares, along with mares that have recently given birth - in some instances, very recently. Kane opens one stall door where a plucky-looking colt rests quietly at his mother's feet. He's clearly been napping, and his hair is mussed like a reluctant child who has been roused in the morning for school. His mother pokes her head out of the stall as if to make a formal inquiry of my presence. But she's more trusting of Kane, and in a way that is poignantly nurturing, he helps the colt stand. Only a few days old, the little guy is still learning how to support his body weight on those spindly legs. Like patients in a hospital, each stall includes an information card identifying the mother's name, the mother's parents' names and the father of the newly born foal.
Down the shedrow, a mare named Terrify delivered a filly by Calumet stallion Aikenite on Valentine's Day, making the little girl exactly two weeks old on the day of my visit. An attendant takes her temperature. Everything about her behavior is precocious, as Kane notes her physical attributes. "This one is off to a good start," he says. For practical purposes, the history has been effaced, and a "good start" might be the best way to describe Calumet's current standing under the direction of Brad Kelley.
As noted historian Edward Gibbon once said of the decline of Rome, Calumet's was perhaps "the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness." Unlike the Roman Empire, Calumet no longer faces the brink of extinction, which really is a good thing. Would baseball be as viable without the Yankees? Calumet and Claiborne may be the old guard in the sport of kings, but their continued success is just as critical.