LEXINGTON, Ky. -- With the bang of an auctioneer's gavel, thoroughbred racing reclaimed legendary Calumet Farm from the scrap heap yesterday.
A day that began with overcast skies and grim foreboding ended in sunshine when Henryk deKwiatkowski's winning bid of $17 million earned a new start for horse racing's most prestigious farm.
The Polish-born deKwiatkowski outbid Issam Fares, whose Fares Farm touches Calumet, in an absolute auction that took less than 15 minutes.
DeKwiatkowski apparently saved Calumet from black fences and subdivisions.
"I came to see what happened to a great institution," he said. "When I read that it might go to someone not in horse racing, or be turned into subdivisions, I got a lump in my stomach."
One potential bidder had even suggested painting Calumet's famed white fences black, a notion that deKwiatkowski quickly dismissed.
"The fences will be painted white as long as I live," he promised.
Hampered by misguided management and a depressed economy, Calumet went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy last July, approximately $127 million in debt. Last November, it sold most of its horses.
Yesterday, its 843 acres were sold in four tracts. DeKwiatkowski bought the prime piece of bluegrass -- 762.73 acres on which is located eight homes, the Calumet mansion, two barns and a racetrack. He later paid $175,000 for a 33.44-acre tract and another $210,000 for the Calumet name.
John Ward, who has served as interim president of Calumet since July, called deKwiatkowski the ideal owner.
"It's a storybook ending to a very sad chapter we had to go through," Ward said. "I see only great things for Calumet. He's a great sportsman and gentleman, and it takes both to be successful."
DeKwiatkowski, who lives in the Bahamas, was engaging both with the crowd of 4,000 at the auction and in an interview session. He drew loud applause when he said, "I assure you, no grass will be changed."
And he drew chuckles from the media when he politely ducked the issue of age, renounced his Polish title of "count" and modestly demurred when asked about a report that he was a World War II hero.
DeKwiatkowski did talk about racing, though, a sport with which he has been involved since the mid-1970s, both as breeder and owner. He owns more than 200 horses, racing them out of the Kennelot Stables in France, Ireland, London and the United States. He said he would have some of those horses shipped immediately to Calumet. Woody Stephens is one of his trainers and is expected to move in.
This was a self-fulfilling prophecy for deKwiatkowski, who remembers driving past Calumet several years ago and promising himself that one day he would own it.
Asked whether he believes he can restore Calumet to the greatness it once knew, he said, "I will aspire to it."
But deKwiatkowski is no stranger to the winner's circle. Twice he has won the Belmont Stakes -- in 1982 with Conquistador Cielo and in 1986 with Danzig Connection. He also won Eclipse Awards with De La Rose in 1981 and Conquistador Cielo in 1982. And he owned Danzig, who was 3-for-3 lifetime and has since become one of the world's most prominent stallions.
DeKwiatkowski gets the title to Calumet free and clear of the massive debt. Ward said that will be the responsibility of the newly created Phoenix Corp., named by secretary-treasurer Ron Sladon for the "bird that rose from the ashes."
Thanks to an 11th-hour reprieve, Calumet now has the same opportunity.