How could it be? How could a single moment be so splendid and awful? Sum up all that is grand and tragic about a place? Can there be a moment of such profound irony anywhere other than in a Hollywood script?
The answer is yes. It happened when Strike the Gold crossed the finish line ahead of 15 horses at Churchill Downs on May 4, winning the Kentucky Derby. Splendid, awful, grand, tragic -- the victory was all that to Calumet Farm, the horse fame to which all aspired for so long.
It sent a message to everyone in racing that Calumet, which bred Strike the Gold and owned him for two years, still had a knack for producing champions. The colt was the ninth Derby winner bred at the 869-acre farm in Lexington, Ky., and, as the first since 1968, represented the crest of a recent comeback.
But the colt was the first Derby winner from Calumet not to race in the farm's famous silks of devil's red and blue. Calumet sold Strike the Gold last year because it needed the money. The farm may have made a comeback, winning an Eclipse Award in 1990 as the sport's top breeder, but it also is under a mountain of debt, at least $60 million.
So the answer is yes. For the people in Calumet's loyal constituency, it will be difficult to find a more ironic sight than Strike the Gold in the Derby winner's circle. How splendid that they raised him. And how sad that they sold him for cash.
Of course, such troubles are emblematic of what has happened to the sport the last few years. The recession and changes in tax laws have stopped the flow of cash into racing, the price of horses has dropped, and those left holding borrowed money are struggling. Reportedly, as many as 150 of the 400 horse farms in Kentucky are for sale.
But there are singular reasons for Calumet's problems, and the farm always did things bigger anyway, so it makes perverse sense that it falls with the loudest crash. The people running the farm insist they will not resort to declaring bankruptcy. We shall see.
It all was unthinkable for years and years, when Calumet was as synonymous with excellence as the Yankees. It produced horses than won two Triple Crowns, seven Preaknesses, two Belmonts and those eight Kentucky Derbys -- all between 1941 and 1968. It is a record unlikely to be matched.
William Monroe Wright bought the place in 1924, cashing in the fortune he'd made selling Calumet baking powder. His son, Warren, inherited the farm in 1931 and converted it from a farm for trotters to one for thoroughbreds. They ran a horse in the Derby for the first time in 1935 and won for the first time in 1941 with Whirlaway, a Triple Crown winner.
They won another Triple Crown with Citation in 1948, then won the Derby in 1949, 1952, 1957 and 1958. Warren Wright died in 1950, but his wife carried on the operation. Her name after remarrying was Lucille Parker Markey, and she kept the farm going until her death in 1982. In her last years, though, she lived in Florida and the farm fell into a decline.
The run of champions stopped after Tim Tam in 1958, due in no small part to the death of Bull Lea, the farm's great sire. Forward Pass won the 1968 Derby, but only after Dancer's Image was disqualified. Otherwise, Calumet ran only one horse in the Derby between 1959 and 1978, when Alydar finished second to Affirmed in all three Triple Crown races.
When Mrs. Markey died, the farm passed on to her daughter-in-law and four children. That their empire was in shambles was evident in 1983, when Calumet-breds won only one stakes race.
But the family handed the operation over to a blunt, headstrong horseman named J. T. Lundy, who had married one of Warren Wright's granddaughters. He turned the farm into a commercial breeder, buying stallions from outside the family, and presided over a recovery in the '80s.
The foundation of that recovery was Alydar, who became a sire of champions, worth $20 million a year in stud fees. He fathered Alysheba and Easy Goer, two of the best horses of the decade, and Criminal Type, the Horse of the Year in 1990. He also fathered Strike the Gold.
But, as this rally took place, enormous problems were surfacing. Under Lundy the farm spent $55 million on two stallions, Mogamabo and Secreto, who bombed. Then came a crushing blow last November: Alydar was put down after breaking his leg in a stall accident. Suddenly, the farm had all this debt and not enough facility to pay it back.
Lundy resigned, and now it is just another story about lawyers and creditors and assumption of debt. You can imagine what Strike the Gold would have meant to the farm had he not been sold. A Derby winner. Perhaps a stallion worth millions.
The people on the farm will still cheer for him today when he runs in the Preakness. They raised him. Raised a champion. But they lost him, too. Lost him as they lost so much else. The irony is indeed profound.