Going, going, almost gone . . . Famed Calumet farm on block

March 26, 1992|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Calumet Farm sits in the lap of bluegrass luxury here, a sprawling monument to what thoroughbred racing once was and to what it has become.

Once the most celebrated farm of its kind in America, it is now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, having amassed $127 million in debt in a nine-year spending spree. Creditors are lined up at the door, IOUs in hand.

Today and tomorrow, to satisfy those creditors, Calumet, all 843 acres, is being auctioned off, piece by piece.

The horses are already gone, most in a dispersal sale last November at the Keeneland Auction. Soon, everything else will be gone, too -- from a fully restored 1939 GMC horse van, to a cast-iron jockey hitching post.

"You couldn't say this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Phil Hanrahan, an attorney for Calumet. "It's the chance to buy and own a legend."

The chance to own a large piece of history may entice some prominent members of the horse racing industry -- and a few wealthy entrepreneurs outside it -- to enter the bidding. According to auctioneer William Bone, vice president of J. P. King Auction Company in New York, "the response has been tremendous . . . it's people with lots of money wanting glory, wanting to return Calumet to glory."

Bone said more than 1,600 people had called about the property, some representing foreign interests. Yet, because a certified check for $500,000 is required to pre-register, only a handful of bidders are expected.

Today, Calumet Farms, which produced two Triple Crown champions -- Whirlaway and Citation -- and eight Kentucky Derby winners, is more museum than horse farm.

Its s 15 barns sit empty, and a state-of-the-art equine veterinary and surgical center goes unused. Of the 88 employees who worked at Calumet a year ago, 10 remain.

Horses were sold as the lawsuits mounted. The yearling sale in September earned $1 million for the farm, and the November dispersal sale grossed $10 million. There are no horses left on the premises, although Calumet has leased out six stallions to farms in the Kentucky's Bluegrass region and in California for the breeding season. When that ends, Calumet will divest itself of its interest in the stallions.

How did the crown jewel of thoroughbred racing come to such a pedestrian fate?

There were questionable decisions by new management in the early 1980s, when the nation's economy was hitting the skids.

In 1982, Bertha Wright and her four children, heirs of the farm's founder, William Monroe Wright, gained control of Calumet and J. T. Lundy became president of Calumet.

Calumet's success had tailed off, and Lundy and the farm's directors invested a lot of money to restore the farm to its glory. They added an exercise pool for horses and the veterinary clinic. They also purchased half-ownership of Secreto, an Epsom Derby winner, for $25 million, and Mogambo, another major stakes winner, for $8 million. Neither horse returned the investment at stud.

Between 1986 and 1989, as the economic climate worsened, Calumet borrowed $64.75 million. Then when Alydar broke his hindleg in his stall on Nov. 13, 1990, and had to be destroyed two days later. Alydar, who was Triple Crown runner-up to Affirmed in 1978, was generating as much as $20 million a year in stud fees at the time.

By April 1991, Lundy resigned and was replaced by John T. Ward. On July 11, Calumet filed for bankruptcy.

Ron Sladon, who came in with Ward as Calumet's secretary-treasurer, said they soon realized how much debt had been incurred.

"There was a declining economy," Sladon said, "and superimposed on that, there was hell-bent for leather borrowing and spending. In hindsight, it's difficult to fathom what the thoughts and motives were. The end result was, it left the operation totally incapable of satisfying the debt service."

Allegations of mismanagement persist. Said Sladon, "Calumet, even in an adverse market, should have been one of the farms to survive."

No matter who the highest bidder is, it seems reasonable to expect Calumet to remain a horse farm because of zoning laws in Lexington.

Can Calumet's glory be restored under new ownership?

"That will be determined by the aggressiveness and financial capability of the new owner," Sladon said.

Interested in Calumet

Among those who reportedly have expressed interest in Calumet:

* Jack Kent Cooke, 79, majority owner of the Washington Redskins. Cooke owns the Elmendorf Racing and Breeding Farm in Lexington.

* Will Farish, a Texas oilman who owns Spendthrift, a neighboring farm to Calumet in Woodford County. Farish tried to buy Calumet in the late 1970s.

* Issam Fares, who owns another neighboring farm, Fares Farm, which touches the back of Calumet.

* Allen Paulson, a horse-farm owner and half-owner of Kentucky Derby favorite Arazi.

* The Maktoum brothers, who are members of the ruling family in United Arab Emirates. Tremendously successful in European racing, the three brothers plan to become involved in this country soon.

* George Steinbrenner, the exiled New York Yankees general partner who is heavily involved in horse racing.

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