Past and Present - by Evan Hammonds

 (Originally published in the January 14, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Evan Hammonds  

By Evan Hammonds

No other Thoroughbred operation has a more storied past than Calumet Farm. The name alone invokes the golden era of the sport and conjures the legends of Whirlaway, Citation, Bull Lea, and Alydar.

From the iconic 44 miles of white fencing that is as synonymous with the farm as its devil’s red and blue racing colors, Calumet represents the benchmark of our business and a symbol for the city of Lexington. The breeding ground of countless stakes winners, champions, 11 Hall of Fame members, and nine Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winners, makes its prime Central Kentucky acreage as hallowed as any other landmark in sport, on a par with the frozen tundra of the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field or the parquet floor of the Boston Celtics.

The fact the farm recently announced it is reopening its breeding shed and standing two stallions for 2012 is significant on two fronts: the return of Calumet to the breeding community and a hunch the economic climate is strong enough to support it.

It has been decades since Calumet led the breeders or owners list, which it once dominated in the 1940s and ’50s. Warren Wright Sr., the son of founder William Wright, bought a quarter interest in Blenheim II and the stallion led the sire list in 1941, the year his son Whirlaway won the Triple Crown. Mighty Bull Lea led the sires list five times.

At the farm’s last major peak in the late 1980s, the stallion roster included not only its homebred star Alydar—who was the last Calumet stallion to lead the national sire list (in 1990)—but also Triple Crown winner Affirmed and Secreto, the 1984 Ever Ready Epsom Derby (Eng-I) winner who made his Central Kentucky debut while being paraded at Keeneland that fall.

As well-documented by the book Wild Ride, by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach, a must-read for every Kentucky hardboot, Calumet Farm fell hard and slipped into bankruptcy by 1991 before being purchased by the swashbuckling Henryk de Kwiatkowski a year later. Since de Kwiatkowski’s death in 2003, the farm has been held by a trust. For the last seven years farm manager Bill Witman has answered to the trust, its board of directors, and six beneficiaries.

He gave the trustees a three-pronged proposal to turn the farm into being commercially viable, and adding stallions “was number four,” Witman said. “But it wasn’t listed to them because we certainly weren’t ready and didn’t know when we would be.”
Timing the market for 2012, Witman hopes he’s read the tea leaves correctly.

“What happened at the September sale and at the November sale…I hope this correction that we’ve gone through in the last three or four years—and I’m using ‘correction’ as a very gentle term because it’s been pretty damn brutal—I’m hoping we’ve not only found the bottom but that this thing has turned around,” he said.

Witman quickly found a pair of Kentucky-worthy stallions in Cactus Ridge and Ice Box. Cactus Ridge, who will be standing his ninth season in 2012, is the sire of 13 stakes winners including grade I winner Hot Cha Cha. Ice Box, a son of Pulpit and winner of the 2010 Florida Derby (gr. I) before finishing second in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, will be standing his first season.

Both Cactus Ridge—in Ponder’s old stall—and Ice Box—bedded down in the stall once belonging to Citation—occupy a special place.

“There are three places on this farm that are sacred ground,” Witman said. “One is the cemetery and one is the racetrack. You can go up to that racetrack on some warm afternoons at dusk and it will make the hair stand up on your neck when you think about all the great horses that galloped on that track every morning. And the other is the stallion barn. There is so much history in there, from Whirlaway and Citation and Alydar that stood right in that barn.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect when I moved them in there,” he said. “They were in another barn while they acclimated here and we moved them in here a few days ago and they’ve been very quiet. Sometimes I think we make a mistake when we try to assign human values to horses, but it’s almost like it’s a reverence; people who have come to see them sense the same thing when they walk in the stallion barn.”

With breeding season starting next month, here’s hoping things don’t stay quiet for long.

7 Comments

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Karen in Indiana

Wow = what he said about how Ice Box and Cactus Ridge have been quiet since being moved into the stallion barn made the hair stand up on my arms.

10 Jan 2012 12:50 PM
Stellar Jayne

Happy New Year Evan!

I enjoyed your article about the history of Calumet and its fabulous former roster of great thoroughbreds.  It is wonderful revisiting its history and what it meant not only to the industry, but the fans who loved those marvelous horses.  I'm not surprised that Ice Box and Cactus Ridge are quiet as though they are in a state of reverence for the previous occupiers of the barn.  I for one have been in strong disagreement with biologists for decades, who hold that animals are not capable of feelings of joy, sadness and loss; memories or other emotions that are peculiarly only ascribed to human beings.  Such human arrogance!

Kwiatkowski was a wonderful man and loved his horses and racing. I am so happy that he protected Calumet through the trust he created for it going forward.  Hopefully they (the trust) will successfully manage its re-emergence with these two fine stallions.

10 Jan 2012 12:53 PM
Cris

The last time I was there was during the Nelson Bunker Hunt auction. I love that stallion barn. I wish the farm all the best and hope in a couple of years we can read about another winner from Calumet.

10 Jan 2012 1:14 PM
Jess Moulder

Someday I'll own a Kentucky stable as historical and beloved as Calumet.

10 Jan 2012 5:10 PM
edrul427

We wish all the best for everyone involved with Calumet farm.

11 Jan 2012 10:42 AM
MRO

Calumet Farm is a magical place......especially that graveyard.  

11 Jan 2012 9:37 PM
horsedoc

I am so happy to here that Calumet is coming back to the racing world!! I have missed seeing anyone wearing the devil's red in the last two decades!! The best of luck to the farm's connections!

Maybe the new guys are listening to Alydar, Citation and the gang for advise!!!

17 Jan 2012 12:22 AM

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