The traditional devil’s red-and-blue silks are long gone, replaced by Brad Kelley’s black-and-gold chevron, but these days maybe a more apt symbol for Calumet Farm would be that of a phoenix, the mythological bird who famously rose from the ashes.
After years of decline, collapse and neglect, Calumet Farm is suddenly a burgeoning presence again in the sport of horse racing with its eye on recreating its unmatched success in Triple Crown races.
True, Calumet won the 2013 Preakness with Oxbow, but that came shortly after new ownership assumed the iconic property off Versailles Road and that horse owed more to Kelley’s previous stables at his Bluegrass Hall and Hurricane Hall farms.
This year is different. This year, Calumet Farm will have three entries in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Sunland Derby winner Hence, Louisiana Derby runner-up Patch and Sonneteer, fourth in the Arkansas Derby, have earned spots in the starting gate for the 20-horse field. All three are Calumet homebreds.
“This is a race that he’s emphasized that he wants to be involved in,” said Todd Pletcher, who trains Patch for Kelley.
“The Derby represents the pinnacle of U.S. horse racing,” said Calumet general manager Eddie Kane. “It is a big deal and very difficult to be in the race, and to win it would be unbelievable as well as very important in the Calumet resurgence.”
And if successful, surely a Calumet Farm resurgence would be one the of the best comeback stories not just in Thoroughbred racing but in all of sports.
Founded in 1924 by William Monroe Wright, owner of the Calumet Baking Powder company, the farm with the distinctive white fences and champion horses became the gold standard of the industry, especially in the 1940s and 1950s.
Under the ownership of son Warren Wright Sr. and later Warren’s widow, Lucille Parker Markey, along with the help of legendary trainer Ben Jones, Calumet produced eight Kentucky Derby winners and two Triple Crown champions — Whirlaway in 1941 and Citation in 1948.
“The impact of Calumet Farm on the Derby is unmatched,” said Ed Bowen, noted racing historian and author. “There were spectacular milestones involved, such as first owner to win $1 million in one year in 1947 and second owner to have two Triple Crown winners — Whirlaway and Citation. Calumet accounted for a Horse of the Year a half-dozen times in the 1940s, while turning out a sequence of additional champions and Hall of Fame members.”
There was more to the farm’s legacy than just winners, however.
“It was that striving desire to be the best, the very best,” said Ann Hagedorn, author of the 1995 book “Wild Ride” about the rise and fall of Calumet. “Calumet was the Yankees, the Celtics, the Red Wings. It just had a magical aura about it.”
Calumet was the Yankees, the Celtics, the Red Wings. It just had a magical aura about it.
Ann Hagedorn, author of ‘Wild Ride’
Paul Rice of Versailles grew up on Calumet, where his father Ewell was the long-time yearling training manager. Rice can remember being eight or nine years old and going one morning to watch his father work with the horses.
“I can remember sitting there on a bucket and watching him,” Rice said. “The sky was crystal blue and the air was crisp. I just felt so much pride. I was so proud of my dad and felt so fortunate to live there. I have such a vivid memory of that.”
There were ups and downs. After Tim Tam’s win in the 1958 Kentucky Derby, Calumet suffered a prolonged drought — interrupted briefly by Forward Pass’ 1968 Derby win through the disqualification of Dancer’s Image — only “to roar back in the mid 1970s with the likes of Alydar, Our Mims, Before the Dawn and Davona Dale under trainer John Veitch.”
It was the stallion Alydar’s death in 1990 under suspicious circumstances that hastened Calumet’s decline and collapse. By 1992 the magnificent farm was forced into bankruptcy.
“I can remember people scraping white paint off the barns and putting them into bags,” said Hagerdorn, who attended the auction. “Then they would sell them for $2 as souvenirs.”
The rights to the distinctive “devil red and blue” silks were purchased by a Brazilian company during the auction.
A trust set up by Polish-born Canadian aeronautical engineer and businessman Henryk de Kwiatkowski purchased the farm in 1992. Though he kept the land from falling into the hands of real estate developers, de Kwiatkowski was not much of a Triple Crown presence after buying Calumet. The farm did not have a single entry in the Kentucky Derby from 1993 until it was sold again in 2012.
The Calumet Investment Trust purchased the property for a reported $36 million and leased the land back to Kelley, a native of Franklin and founder of Commonwealth Brands, which he reportedly sold for $1 billion in 2001. An avid conservationist, he is one of the nation’s largest private landowners.
Avoiding the spotlight, Kelley doesn’t do media interviews, but he has invested heavily in Calumet’s breeding and racing operation. According to America’s Best Racing, Calumet has purchased 382 horses at a combined total of $37.2 million since 2013.
“He clearly reveres the place his farm has in the annals of the sport and seems to be dedicated to bloodlines capable of the stamina and durability which marked the glory days,” said Bowen.
And Calumet has made no secret about pointing toward the Triple Crown races, particularly the Kentucky Derby.
“It’s on the mind of every breeder, to raise and develop horses for the classic races,” Kane said. “It’s all part of the dream that makes the sport so special.”
The comeback is far from complete. This year’s Derby entries are longshots with Hence, trained by Steve Asmussen, believed to have the best chance. Still, fans and industry appear to have the Calumet name back in the game.
“It just shows that the collapse of Calumet, Inc. and the dark times there never destroyed the farm’s aura,” said Hagedorn. “The name still means something.”
Paul Rice will be at Churchill Downs on Derby day and though he laments the fact Calumet no longer races in its traditional colors, he knows where his heart will be.
“I’ll be rooting for the Calumet Farm horses,” he said.
Hagedorn will be at a journalism symposium in the Adirondacks in New York on Derby day. She has been told there will be little or no cell phone service there so has instructed a friend to call her if a Calumet Farm entry hits the finish line first.
“That would be just so wonderful,” she said. “If that happens, I will have to be there for the Preakness and the Belmont.”
She also said this: “Bravo Brad Kelley.”
“I think Mr. Kelley, as you can see, is putting together a pretty powerful stable,” said Pletcher on Friday after Patch had put in his final work in preparation for the Derby. “He’s carrying on that Calumet tradition in a big way. It looks to me like it’s only going to get bigger.”
Calumet Farm’s Kentucky Derby winners
1941 - Whirlaway
1944 - Pensive
1948 - Citation
1949 - Ponder
1952 - Hill Gail
1957 - Iron Leige
1958 - Tim Tam
1968 - Forward Pass
Post time: 6:34 p.m.
Where: Churchill Downs