Calumet finishing out of the money is rude end for proud farm

July 26, 1991|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Evening Sun Staff

LAUREL -- Peter Pugh pulls on his red baseball cap with the blue lettering that spells "Calumet Farm," and hops into his pickup truck.

"You wanna know what really makes me mad? People that dump this farm," the 39-year-old trainer said.

"I hear it all the time -- 'hey, have you got paid yet?' -- stuff like that. They would be so lucky to have even one son of Alydar standing in their shedrow."

The litany goes on, ever since the world-renowned farm, the farm that is synonymous in this country with horse racing and Kentucky bluegrass, filed for bankruptcy on July 11.

A week earlier Pugh shipped into Laurel with the bulk of what is left of the Calumet Farm racing string -- 10 horses, including two sons of Alydar, named Joy Maker and Aly Fresco; Beautiful Gold, a daughter of champion sire Mr. Prospector out of Calumet's champion filly, Before Dawn, and seven other royally-bred, though heavily leveraged, horses.

"It's just sad, really sad," Pugh continued. "If you go there [to the farm in Lexington], you walk into the office and see the countless plaques that the founder Warren Wright was given for his contributions to racing; the trophies that the horses won. Then you drive around, and see this amazing farm. You just have the feeling this is an important place. It exudes such energy. It is such a shame. But the horses don't know the place is bankrupt. They are still really fine animals."

Indeed, how did the farm that just last year raced the Horse of the Year, Criminal Type, and just this spring bred the Kentucky Derby winner, Strike the Gold, go bust?

It is a tangled tale, that will take some time to be played out in courtrooms and boardrooms. The story is basically one of overexpansion during the boom years of the '80s, expensive stallion purchases such as Mogambo and Secreto that turned out to be duds and the death last fall of the farm's premier sire, Alydar, who generated about $8 million annually in stud fees.

But the bottom line is this: When the bankruptcy petition was filed two weeks ago, the farm was in debt from $118 million to $135 million, according to which accounts you read; Calumet and its partners owed from 84 to 87 creditors, including $2.6 million to Wayne Lukas, the farm's former principal trainer; and the 830-acre showplace is on the market.

When the farm sold seven of its nine yearlings at the recent Keeneland (Ky.) Select Sale, the proceeds went directly to a bank in Houston. The rest of the yearling crop is expected to be auctioned off this fall.

The Ford Motor Co. even had to yank television ads that compared the tradition and class of its cars to Calumet, the farm of champions.

Pugh was hired in April, well before the bankruptcy filings, but when reports of the farm's financial troubles began to surface.

J. T. Lundy, the man, rightly or wrongly, credited with leading Calumet to destruction, resigned, and respected Kentucky horseman John T. Ward Jr. was named to succeed him as the farm's chief operating officer.

"Ward immediately started cleaning house, finding ways to trim expenses," Pugh said. "He basically changed everything, from getting a new office staff to a new farm trainer."

The racing operation, which was spread all over the country with several different trainers including Lukas, was consolidated.

"I was hired while I was at Keeneland with a few horses," Pugh said. The former steeplechase rider was hired on a salary basis to cut down on large per diem training rates charged by horsemen like Lukas. "I don't know why he [Ward] picked me. I did have a fairly good meet at Keeneland from limited opportunities and I had known his brother, Sherrill Ward [trainer of Forego]. Ward didn't guarantee anything, such as how long this job might last."

All of the Calumet horses were shipped home. "Then we sorted through them," Pugh said.

The two best horses, Greydar, a stakes-winning older brother to Strike the Gold, and Le Voyageur, third a couple of years ago in the Belmont Stakes, were sent to Neil Howard, of Summer Squall fame.

"I think Ward has a couple of horses. There are some 2-year-olds and layups on the farm and then I have the rest," Pugh said. "If I stayed in Kentucky, I would have had to race this summer at Ellis Park, which didn't fit the horses. If I went to Arlington Park, the meet isover in September. So, when the decision was made to come to Maryland, we got the horses together and made the voyage."

From his first three starters, Pugh has picked up three checks. Joy Maker won a midweek allowance feature; Aly Fresco was second in his first start; and Hi Flappin was third yesterday in the feature race.

"Every time I run a horse, I don't know what to expect," Pugh said. "It's a big experiment."

Pugh particularly likes a colt named Chubby Hubby, who is getting ready for a return to the races; Van Beethoven, a son of Vaguely Noble who beat Mane Minister in his maiden score in California last winter, and anything sired by Calumet stallion Wild Again.

"It's easy to see why Wild Again is currently the third leading sire in the nation," Pugh said. "They are so eager. If they could put the tack on themselves, they would."

As for the Alydars, Pugh finds them temperamental. "But once they get to like you, they will run," Pugh said.

Pugh is realistic about the duration of his job. "The idea is to make the Maryland operation pay for itself, and perhaps make a little money, and to get recent, and decent form on the horses, if they are to be sold," he said.

The horses are worth more running than standing at home in the fields.

Pugh said he expects the fate of the farm to be decided by late October when re-organization plans are due to be filed in bankruptcy court.

Pugh tugs on the cap with the famous devil's red and blue colors.

"If the job continues, it's wonderful," he said. "If not, then it's been a nice experience.

"I think anyone would die to say they trained horses for Calumet Farm."

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