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