John Clay: Calumet's return to racing prominence is a welcome one

Calumet Farm sits along Versailles Road in Lexington, near New Circle Road.
Calumet Farm sits along Versailles Road in Lexington, near New Circle Road. Herald-Leader

Saturday's Preakness Stakes was a great big welcome back to a trio of horse racing's most important names: D. Wayne Lukas, Gary Stevens and Calumet Farm. However, Brad Kelley, the owner of Calumet, wasn't at Pimlico, and don't expect him to step into the limelight anytime soon.

Thanks to the front-running Oxbow, Lukas, 77, became the all-time winningest Triple Crown trainer with 14 victories.

Stevens, 50, in just his fourth month of riding since he ended a seven-year retirement, became the oldest jockey to win the second jewel, topping Eldon Nelson, who was 45 when he rode Bee Bee Bee to a Preakness win in 1972.

Calumet Farm, the iconic Thoroughbred establishment near Keeneland that produced Triple Crown winners Whirlaway in 1941 and Citation in 1948, now has eight Preakness winners, but Oxbow is the first since Forward Pass in 1968, its most recent previous triumph in the classics.

In the meantime, the farm has been the subject of controversy and bankruptcy, recently sold for a reported $36 million to an investment group that in turn leased the property to Kelley, a former tobacco magnate and current racing enthusiast who is thought to be a member of the investment group.

Kelley was nowhere to be found Saturday, which is his norm. The reclusive billionaire — 264th on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans — is rarely seen in public and almost never speaks to the media.

Erin Kelley, one of his three daughters, was at Pimlico to accept the trophy. She declined to join the post-race press conference, sending word that she didn't wish to speak "in this setting."

And although Oxbow is listed as owned by Calumet Farm, the three-year-old raced in the black and gold silks of Kelley's Bluegrass Hall, a 200-acre farm across from Keeneland that once was known as Bluegrass Farm and was formerly owned by Nelson Bunker Hunt.

In fact, Daily Racing Form reported that Calumet's silks were sold at auction in 1992 to a Brazilian businessman for $12,000.

It also reported that Kelley, who now lives in Franklin, Tenn., sold ownership of Kentucky Downs rather than subject himself to the vetting that goes with applying for a gaming license.

Kelley won't confirm or deny any of that because he rarely speaks to the media. A New York Times reporter managed to reach him by phone in 2005 for an interview that Kelley described as like being on a reality show.

According to his NTRA bio page, Kelley is a native of Franklin, Ky., who sold his Commonwealth Brands Tobacco Co. to Bowling Green's Houchens Industry for $1 billion.

He has since invested in and bought ranch land in Texas, Florida and New Mexico, accumulating more than 1.2 million acres — he is listed as among the 10 largest private landowners in America — where he reportedly keeps black rhinos, white rhinos and other exotic animals that he later sends to zoos.

He also reportedly drives a pickup truck, and a recent Wall Street Journal story included a nugget, gleaned from friends, that Kelley, 55, has a long red beard.

Actions speak louder than words, of course, and Kelley seems intent on reviving the Calumet profile. He has moved his racing and breeding operation from Bluegrass Hall and Hurricane Hall, a 300-acre farm he owns near Georgetown, to the 798 acres of Calumet. He is thought to own 100 broodmares, and last year, he had 40 horses in training.

Kelley has described himself as lucky, but if you are hoping to catch him in public, you're probably out of luck.

Even after Saturday's Triple Crown triumph, Lukas reported that he had not heard from Oxbow's owner, nor had that changed early Sunday morning.

"But I know that he's excited," Lukas said Saturday.

Well, at least racing is excited to have Calumet back in the game.

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