Draft horses, huge, bulky, strong as a rhinoceros, were bred for hauling logs, weighty loads of this or that; also now bred for a pulling contest. With a driver, the horses work as a team; a lightweight team may weigh 3,000 to 3,600 pounds and for a race called the Free For All upward of 5,000 pounds. Behind the team, a contraption is weighted with big cinder blocks which are pulled in hitches. After the first hitch, more cinder blocks are added, until, if the team perseveres, it can drag the load for twenty-seven and a half feet. The end of the race is horse exhaustion. The sweating, groaning, huge Percherons can pull no more. “Gee up, donkey! Sweat, you slave! Live, and be damned!” (a line from Baudelaire about his indolence, but it might bring to mind the commands to a beast of burden).
The older horse farms out on the pikes in Lexington had for the children of the town a mysterious, somber life like that of the absentee owners, especially the Widener farm, Elmendorf, in the shadows of tall trees, old gardens and the fields behind. It might, in imagination, have come out of a German fairy tale. The esteemed owners were distant stars, even old Sam Riddle who was exhibiting Man o’War as a historic, inimitable sight like Mammoth Cave and its stalagmites. One horse family, the Haggins, lived on their place and were a part of town life, leaving its mark on the movie house, the Ben Ali, named for Ben Ali Haggin.
The later farms are fresh, clear acres with white fences on the road, white barns, sunlit fields in which you could see a foal, just out of the mare, wob-ble uncertainly on its stick legs and then run across the meadow. The foal and the unridden wild horses racing across the plains in movies are the true tribute to a running horse as an aesthetic vision. The Kentucky horse farm became a celebrity acquisition like a Palm Beach mansion or a spread in the South of France. Elizabeth Arden had her turn and a notable one it was for the gossip that she rubbed her horses down with her patented astringents and soothed their sore limbs with her creams. She was known for dismissing staff, one trainer after another. It is a desolating fact that Tom Smith, the quiet, melancholy, deeply experienced trainer of Seabiscuit, ended up in her barns and produced for her a Kentucky Derby winner, Jet Pilot.
The Calumet Farm on Versailles Road is another story, told in Wild Ride by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach, its subtitle “The Rise and Tragic Fall of Calumet Farm, Inc., America’s Premier Racing Dynasty.” Fall is the word; tragic, an unearned gift for a brightly told tale of money, greed, spectacular horses in a world, or in barns, where stud fees have risen from a few hundred to $40,000 for a hit in 1980. The Wright family, from around Dayton, Ohio, came into a fortune when the elder Wright, after peddling Royal Baking Powder and rising in the corporation, decided to manufacture his own baking powder, Calumet. William Wright, hard, tight-fisted, wise in oil and gas investments, in retirement turned his business over to his son, Warren, and thought to spend his money breeding trotters for harness racing at Calumet Farm outside Lexington. He was eighty years old and in a coma when his horse won the Hambletonian Stakes, the supreme prize.
His son, Warren, inherited the farm and found harness racing poky and with no more glamour than an evening game of horseshoes in the back yard. He switched to thoroughbreds—their breeding an indelicate lovemaking:
Producing a racehorse wasn’t like manufacturing baking powder. It was as much a matter of luck, a sort of genetic lottery, as it was a science or an art. The industry’s past was filled with instances of horses with lousy pedigrees turning out to be winners and horses from the best lines unable to win a single race. Even the moment of conception wasn’t that simple to orchestrate. To determine whether a mare was ready to mate, the farm used a teaser, a horse whose job was to tease the mares in any number of ways, including unconsummated humping, flirting, or nuzzling across a paddock fence…. When the stallion’s tail swooshed up, the grooms knew the horse had completed his job.
The success of Calumet Farm was unrivaled. Whirlaway, ridden by Eddie Arcaro, won the Triple Crown in 1941; Citation won the Crown in 1948 and was the first horse in history to earn a million dollars. Calumet Farm “ranked even better than the Baron de Rothschild’s world-renowned stable in Paris or the Aga Khan’s in England.”
Warren Wright died and left a widow, Lucille Parker Wright, born in Lewis, Kentucky; a “hardscrabble past.” They had a son, Warren Junior, an insecure, unhappy wastrel—failed business adventures downtown, unpaid bills, detested to his grave by his mother, who was shrewdly attached to a dollar bill for any use apart from her own. Warren married, had three children, one of whom, his daughter Cindy, would inadvertently figure in the decline and fall of the splendid, rich acres of Calumet Farm.
An old proverb says: A rich widow weeps with one eye and laughs with the other. And so it was with Widow Lucille: after the departing black hearse, a sunny, glorious resurrection. Very rich, in her sixties she bought a “Spanish-style mansion with winding staircases and palatial balconies draped in red roses in the Bel-Air district of Los Angeles. It was in Hollywood that she met the man who really turned her life into a fairy-tale: Gene Markey.” A leap for Lucille and a featherbed landing for Gene Markey. It must be said that the new husband had a distinguished track record: three previous marriages to Myrna Loy, Joan Bennett, and Hedy Lamarr, his own, if you want to linger at the parimutuel window, Triple Crown.
Before becoming a screenwriter and producer in Hollywood, Markey had served in the Navy in World War II, gathering the Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit, and the French Legion of Honor. He liked, indeed insisted, that he be addressed as Admiral and he slipped gracefully into the Bluegrass landscape, toting Lucille, who hadn’t been previously quite the right sort, along with him. Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Wayne, Prince Aly Khan, and other stars came to party and to drink bourbon whiskey, which Markey described as an “immeasurable contribution to the well-being of mankind.” The farm’s horses did well and Lucille and the Admiral tottered to the track at Keeneland Race Course and to the horse sales. In 1978, Warren Junior predeceased the pair, but neither attended his funeral. Instead they were watching the Preakness in which their two outstanding horses, Alydar and Affirmed, were racing each other. Gene Markey died at the age of eighty-four; Lucille lived to be ninety-three, leaving money to Wright descendants by the old man’s will, beyond her control, but leaving not a penny to any Wright from her own $300 million. Instead she endowed by a trust medical research in an important foundation; left bequests to her staff, which would help to “erase the memory of her years as a miser and to encourage those closest to her to talk kindly of her, despite what they might remember.”
Warren Junior’s daughter, Cindy, dropped out of high school to marry J.T. Lundy, a farm boy from nearby Scott County. None of the grandchildren had any interest in Calumet; J.T. Lundy, now son-in-law, was interested in the horse farm in the manner of a cat’s fascination with a mouse. He became the general manager of the “empire” and a hurricane it was to be, recorded in meticulous detail about the unmeticulous manager in Wild Ride. It is the story of the horse Alydar and Lundy’s relentless breeding sessions and the stallion’s final mysterious end; along with expansion of the farm, syndication of the breeding business, and the expenditures of the new king of Calumet. A Falcon jet of his own and other planes. “Lundy could borrow money to buy a jet and then lease it back to Calumet, charging the farm $30,000 per month.”
During the 1980s horse racing and breeding became big business. “Own a piece of a horse.” At the Keeneland auction in July 1984, “the average price for the eighty-one horses sold that night was $809,259, compared with $45,000 average in 1975.” What was called the “Bluegrass Bubble” became like the tulip mania in Holland—buy a load of bulbs, modest objects, and get rich. J.T. Lundy was a frantic player, an immensely rich man, in the game of breeding winning horses for future winners, a bloodline fantasy; he offered the sale of fifteen breeding rights to Calumet’s valuable Alydar for about “2.5 million each.” He borrowed huge sums from willing banks and spent on follies that required a strange sort of imagination to conceive. What shall we do now? Well, “take an entourage of friends on the Calumet jet for a day trip, like the time he flew four or five pals to Kennebunkport, Maine, for a lobster lunch, a glimpse of George Bush’s house, and back home again.” Lundy had eaten of the insane root and the witches gathered in the belfry of Calumet.
The horse, Alydar, became in the breeding stall what it is not extravagant to call a male whore under the expert, ever-vigilant pimp Lundy. Rights to breed a mate to Alydar once in a breeding season were sold for as much as $350,000 each. The industry’s average was fifty to sixty times a year; for Alydar it was as many as one hundred. “A trip to the breeding shed several times a day, at 9:00 AM, noon, 3:00 PM and on some days, at 7:00 PM, too.” The poor horse slowed down and the pre-sold breeding contracts were in trouble. And Calumet was bankrupt.
Seabiscuit and Wild Ride, written by horse-lovers, are extraordinary contributions to the history of one sport. Their worthy labors are alive with winners with a wreath of roses around their necks; owners’ wives in large hats of floral and feather decorations, a tradition which, if memory serves, goes back to my youth; owners getting a bit back in their bank accounts; crowds arriving in shirt-sleeves and old cars at dawn for what is called a spectacle. Along with the noise and excitement, the books tell many a sad and sordid story of the stagecraft behind the bright scrim.
Foolish J.T. Lundy, of Calumet, made a fool of willing bankers, buyers of fantasy foals to come, signers of promissory notes, accountants, not to mention forging signatures of people who trusted him. Lawsuits followed, one after another, a fantastical parade of litigation only a heavy loser would wish to follow. “In 1995, the fates of J.T. Lundy’s deal makers and associates ranged from lengthy prison terms, a suicide attempt, and violent death….” The fourth generation of the Wright family was reduced to pauperism. Courtenay Wright, a daughter, spent a time pouring Pepsi at the restaurant Long John Silver.
Everything at Calumet was put up for auction: the land, the remaining valuable horses, the buildings, the contents, including mint julep cups, water buckets, and feather dusters; the last went for $30. The farm itself and the hallowed name went to a Polish refugee known as Henryk de Kwiakowski, who by a well-knit magic carpet winged his way to America, got into selling used airplanes, such as those of Boeing and Trans World, to countries in need, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. At last he owned all he could wish and like others with a superfluity of money, it was to be a horse farm, Calumet.
Things, acquisitions, and losses cannot compete with the tired stud Alydar, insured for $36.5 million, most of it by Lloyd’s of London. On a November night in 1990, a groom was filling in for the usual night watchman. Checking Alydar’s barn, he found the horse “black with sweat, his flanks heaving and trembling…eyes white with fear.” The farm boss and the resident veterinarian were called; strong painkillers were injected into the horse’s jugular vein. Lundy arrived, also the insurance adjuster and Dr. Bramlage, the nation’s “foremost equine orthopedist.” The horse’s broken leg was put in a temporary cast and held off the ground by a sling. The equine ambulance transported it to the farm’s horse hospital for surgery that took about two hours and forty minutes. Hours later, when all was thought to be well, Alydar tried to stand, fell, and broke the leg again, and died.
Alydar’s injury was complicated by a broken door of his stall. A large metal bracket, with a metal roller inside for closing, was on the floor. Forensic investigators followed, some saying the horse could have kicked the door, others finding that impossible. Like such testimony on Court TV, forensics ended in a draw. Lloyd’s paid a sum, not all of it because Lundy was millions in arrears in his payments. The sum, and all else of the great squandering, went for debts and Lundy disappeared. At the publication of Wild Ride, 1995, whereabouts unknown.
Horses at the track, crashing out of the gate, crowded together so closely they can eat each other’s dust; the jockey in a tense half-stand, pulling the reins, faster, faster. A mile and a bit and it’s over. Does the horse know whether he is first, second, or trailing way back? But how they do race, and in the fierce turmoil that is the mystery of it, the fame of it. And yet, and yet, in the life of a horse there are quiet, solitary moments of splendor:
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
—T.S. Eliot,”Journey of the Magi”