Seabiscuit: An American Legend
by Laura Hillenbrand
Random House, 399 pp., $24.95
Wild Ride: The Rise and Tragic Fall of Calumet Farm, Inc., America’s Premier Racing Dynasty
by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach
Owl Books, 438 pp., $16.00 (paper)
So many years at home, Lexington, Kentucky, heart of the Bluegrass, as we name it, to wrench it away from the Kentucky mountains with their hills scarred and rutted from ruthless strip mining for coal; the Anglo-Saxons or Scotch-Irish on the front porches; their songs with zithers and fiddles; bungalow churches and the enduring speech of aint’s and haint’s and hit’s down yonder, elevated by friendly philologists to an honorable heritage from old England or Scotland.
Lexington is horses, along with tobacco and Bourbon whiskey for the solace of the citizens. Not horses for plowing the fields, but thoroughbred animals for racing and for breeding future racers by way of a fantastical, almost religious, avowal of equine cloning: noble sire and pedigreed princess for mare, their Almanach de Gotha the Stud Book and The Bloodhorse, founded and published in Lexington. The horse magic of our county, Fayette, is thought to be a historic accumulation of limestone in the soil, productive of strong bones; our shining green grass, mysteriously called blue, rich for grazing. We walked over the lustrous grass, went to school by way of Limestone Street without noticeable benefit from the bone nutrients beneath the sidewalks; yet there is little reason to doubt the local gift to the modern racer whose bloodlines, according to history, may be traced to Darley Arabian, captured in Turkey in 1698 and shipped to England. A Barbary horse—the name given to Othello by Iago in an obscene passage warning the house of Desdemona: “You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you will have coursers for cousins, and gennets for germans.”
On my street in New York one can of an evening sometimes hear the weary clop-clop of horses going home to wherever the stables may be. Perhaps it is the mounted police returning from their surveillance duties in Central Park, whose trees and bushes and dark, curved pathways may hide a purse-snatcher or an urban demon with unspeakable desires. More likely it is the forlorn hoof of the drooping horses who stand across from the Plaza Hotel, hitched to their patched-together open carriages, drivers in a battered top hat and tail coat: a faux antique for the tourists like the claw-footed settees in the junk shops. Here and there a faded memory of the unruly horse who has since the dawn of history served, under restraints, for personal transportation, chariot war games, agriculture, and, for three centuries, the sport of kings, racing each other.
Man o’War, a daunting local and national celebrity, outshining Daniel Boone, the intrepid explorer of the “dark and bloody ground,” Kentucky. August Belmont II, or Junior, sold Man o’War as a yearling to Samuel Riddle in 1918 and after a notable number of triumphs the famous horse was retired to the Riddle farm in Lexington. There he stood as stud to many successful runners, including the Triple Crown winner War Admiral. When not thus employed, the horse was visited by thousands, not a one of whom he recognized or for whom he signed an autograph. He was memorialized by a three-thousand-pound bronze sculpture, placed on a base over his grave and later settled in the Kentucky Horse Park. The greatest horse of the century by a recent vote of those who know. A sports journalist wrote: “He had a personality, and the dignity of a king. He was a great actor. Every race was a show for him and, like all great actors, he never let his public down.”
Perhaps, but there he stood in his retirement, blinking and nodding off, since horses can sleep standing up if they wish. With his burnished coat, Man o’War was better groomed than the old rake Beau Brummel; on the other hand he might have been, to the ignorant eye, a plebeian farm horse standing behind the fence in the countryside. He lost only one race and that one subject to doubts; and yet the distinguished creature, honored in life and death, was just a horse for all that.
Seabiscuit—a thoroughbred horse who won many races in the 1930s. Seabiscuit—a current, widely read book about the horse, owners, trainers, jockeys, the racing scene of the period. Passing the plain front, strewn with many crumpled, losing tickets, of OTB (off-track betting) on West 72nd Street in Manhattan, one might wonder if the addicted customers going in and out retain enough cash for reading matter other than The Daily Racing Form. Gambling, playing the horses as it is called, is hope deferred, but encouraged throughout the sport with admirable frankness. At the track, the odds are posted, the parimutuel windows are open for win, place, and show. In truth, a day at the races has its blank periods. After the thrill of the plunge out of the gates, a single race takes only a few minutes at the most and then there is a gap before the next one, ample time for amateurs to put two dollars down on a long shot, just in case.
Gambling was banned as a companion of the Prohibition movement and here is Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, on the legislation outlawing wagering:
The result was catastrophic for racing. At the turn of the century, well over three hundred tracks had been operating nationwide; by 1908, only twenty-five remained, and the attrition continued until World War I…. Many horsemen were forced to abandon the sport and sell off their farms and horses. Most of the rest, especially in the West, retreated to a sort of racing underground, a series of leaky-roof tracks scattered through Canada and the few American states where the sport had not been banned.
Seabiscuit is a remarkable work of racing scholarship, confidently written and rich in the portraiture of the melancholy contract between an animal of over 1,000 pounds and a skinny little fellow dieting, fasting, and vomiting to meet the ordained weight, sometimes only 100 pounds. There is a measure of sentimentality, a genetic disposition, it would seem, of racing writers as well as those whose life work is the saddle, the training strategy, the buying and selling of horses. However, the author’s emotion is checked by the painful reality of much she has to tell.
The horse, Seabiscuit, is dramatically shaped for a sort of fairy tale; an unimpressive ugly duckling, although in the bloodline of Man o’War, by way of the exceptional horse Hard Tack. Seabiscuit: stunted body, low on the ground, “all the properties of a cinder block”; stubby legs, his walk a “straddle-legged motion…often mistaken for lameness.” His first trainer said, “I found out why he wasn’t running…. It wasn’t that he couldn’t. It was that he wouldn’t.” He liked to sleep; by nature more bovine than equine.
Charles Howard, the ultimate owner of Seabiscuit, started out in a bicycle-repair shop, but early saw the future of the motor car and made his fortune by shipping three Buicks to San Francisco in what was still the horse-and-buggy age and moving on from there. When there is great wealth, inherited or acquired, and so much has been bought or handed down, why not buy and raise horses and watch them run from the owner’s box? Thoroughbred racing is an endless, flowing river of expense—the farm, the barns, the manor house, the transportation of the huge beasts, their feeding, trainers, exercise riders, grooms, jockeys, veterinarians on call. Charles Howard went seriously into horses for racing and left his name in the annals of the track, even if, as a self-made man, he did not make the Jockey Club, a sort of human stud book, if you like, with the royal names of Widener, Belmont, Vanderbilt, Whitney, Phipps, among others. And then Howard’s turf was northern California, San Francisco, where he and “his close friend” Bing Crosby invested in the creation of the major track, Santa Anita Park. Seabiscuit came to the Howard stables by way of a trainer named Tom Smith, who, like many track men working for hire, had harsh experience behind him.
Smith, a lonely, quiet figure, had been around horses from his boyhood, breaking mustangs on the plains, “trimming their hooves, and bending over an anvil to forge their shoes… sleeping at their feet under the Colorado mountains.” A woeful time was spent in a sort of cut-rate Barnum and Bailey wandering show, then tending horses running in claiming races under barbaric conditions. The owner of the relentless circuit “was known to pack thirty horses onto a single four-door railcar, ship them to a race, yank them off the car, and run them without giving them water or letting them warm up…. He ran a mare named Miss Cheyenne sixteen times in twenty-one days.” In a roundabout way, Smith was hired by Charles Howard and sent off to look for
a bargain animal whose talent had been overlooked by the old-money lords of eastern racing…. In June 1936 Smith arrived in Massachusetts. He traveled from track to track, looking at hundreds of cheap horses, but he couldn’t find the one he sought. On the sweltering afternoon of June 29, at Boston’s Suffolk Downs, the horse found him.
In racing history there are many epiphanies, remembered or imagined. Watching an unwieldy horse, a three-year-old, win a race, “after throwing a fit in the starting gate,” Smith approached the unsaddled animal and their eyes met. “Darned if the little rascal didn’t nod back at me…kinda like he was paying me an honor to notice me.” As the horse was led away, Smith said, “I’ll see you again.” Thus Seabiscuit came to the Howard stables, to the trainer, Tom Smith, and finally to a jockey named Red Pollard. A tale of winning races, broken bones, chest caved in, loss of the sight in one eye, Red Pollard, noted rider.
The personalization of pets is commonplace and the horse, by man tamed and trained for various uses, is often seen as a character, even though it cannot be thought of as a pet. Tolstoy had a deep knowledge of horses, as can be found in The Cossacks and in the brilliant narrative of a steeplechase race in Anna Karenina. Vronsky, about town the night before and going off from one of the What-Shall-We-Do scenes with Anna, mounts his mare, Frou-Frou, and the race goes well at first in a detailed rendering of the sport. “She cleared the ditch as if she did not notice it, flying over like a bird.” And then Vronsky made the mistake of dropping back in the saddle and the horse sank to the ground. “Vronsky’s clumsy movement had broken her back.” Unforced errors.
Tolstoy also wrote a long, strange story called “Yardstick,” the name of the horse and the most imaginative, original, knowing horse narrative in literary history. It is told by the horse, an unfortunate creature, a skewbald, gelded by a groom because of his unsightly, unacceptable coloring. The outcast tells of his suffering, beginning with the rejection by his dam, and of his days with many others of his kind, with a Prince and a Hussar and their mistresses, the busy, treasured colts in the stalls. One of Yardstick’s most interesting ponderings is the meaning of the phrase “My horse.” “I did not understand the significance of calling me the property of man…. The word ‘My horse’ referred to me a living horse, and seemed to me strange as ‘my land, my air, my water.’”
Before the triumphs and travails of the jockey Red Pollard, consider the hard life of so many. “No athletes suffered more for their sport. The jockey lived hard and lean and tended to die young, trampled under the hooves of horses or imploding from the pressures of his vocation.” A young jockey named Thomas Dowell turned up, half-starved and disoriented, at a bus station in Columbus, Ohio. The police took him to the station to offer medical help; when the doctor left the cell for a moment, “Dowell slipped his belt off, coiled it around his neck, and hanged himself.” Another jockey, Tommy Luther, had his head split by a steel overhead beam at the starting gate, recovered, only to be hurt in a later race when “the filly he was riding abruptly tripped over her own legs and plunged headfirst into the track…. Three horses…struck her from behind. Their hooves cracked into Tommy’s head as they fell.” From this monstrous collision, little Tommy also survived.
Red Pollard, who would ride Seabiscuit, was born in 1909, in Edmonton, Alberta. It was a respectable family, prosperous until a flood destroyed the father’s business and the family’s fortunes were swept away. Young Red did not take to the schoolroom, but in a world where books are as scarce as lessons on the harpsichord, Pollard was living “on the road of the racing circuit, sleeping in empty stalls, carrying with him only a saddle, his rosary, and his books: pocket volumes of Shakespeare, Omar Khayyám’s Rubaiyat, a little copy of Robert Service’s Songs of the Sourdough, maybe some Emerson, whom he called ‘Old Waldo.’” Before racing, Pollard spent some time as a boxer, another punishing sport, which, without much success, he abandoned for a racing career that started at bottom-level tracks. He was just fifteen, a bit tall at five feet seven, but weighing only 101 pounds. In spite of the unlikely volume of the essays of “Old Waldo” in his pocket, Pollard’s life was not that of a gentleman.
The life: the body of a jockey was a hell of infirmity, as if stricken by a wasting disease:
Water, because of its weight, was the prime enemy…. Most drank virtually nothing…. Then there were sweating rituals, topped by “road work,”…donning heavy underwear, zipping into a rubber suit, swaddling in hooded winter gear and woolen horse blankets, then running around and around the track, preferably under a blistering summer sun…. Most jockeys ingested every manner of laxative to purge their systems of food and water…. [An inventor] dreamed up a foul-smelling recipe for self-parboiling [consisting of] …piping-hot water mixed with three to five pounds of Epsom salts, one quart of white vinegar, two ounces of household ammonia, and a mystery lather he called Hawley’s Cream.
The jockeys were to steep in the mixture. The inventor’s estimate of the cumulative weight loss by 1945 was “12,860 pounds—more than six tons.”
Pollard began riding in shabby tracks in Montana and Vancouver in the 1920s. After an unpromising beginning, he improved sufficiently to win a stakes race at Agua Caliente in Tijuana; from there he, a scrawny knight, rode forth to meet his first rite of passage—an appalling injury. In a morning workout with a negligible horse, a rock or clump of earth “flew up from under the animal’s hooves and struck Pollard in the head. The object slammed into Pollard’s skull over the visual center of his brain…. For the price of a 50-cent galloping fee he was probably never paid, Pollard lost the sight in his right eye forever.” He went on riding, keeping the blind eye a secret and adding to it a remarkable sum of shattered limbs.
Requiring that its human competitors straddle erratic animals moving in dense groups at extremely high speed, race riding in the 1930s, as today, was fraught with extreme danger. Riders didn’t even have to leave the saddle to be badly hurt. Their hands and shins were smashed and their knee ligaments ripped when horses twisted beneath them or banged into rails and walls…. With the advent of the first primitive, unpadded starting gates in the early thirties, some riders actually died in the saddle…. The only thing more dangerous than being on the back of a racehorse was being thrown from one…. Serious insults to the body, the kind of shattering or crushing injury seen in high-speed auto wrecks, are an absolute certainty for every single jockey. Today the Jockeys’ Guild, which covers riders in the United States, receives an average of twenty-five hundred injury notifications per year, with two deaths and two and a half cases of paralysis.
Seabiscuit, a cranky, resisting, and funny-looking horse, Tom Smith, a taciturn, intuitive trainer, and Pollard, “his winning percentage dropped to a lamentable 6 percent,” met in 1936 at the Detroit Fair Grounds track. Smith was looking for a rider and when Pollard ambled over to the stall he was remembered by Smith from years back somewhere in the West. The trainer: troubled days and nights, consid-erations obscure and heavy with consequence; the daily judgment of the ground of the track, the bones, aches, and moods of the horse, the wizened souls of the jockeys. Nevertheless, Tom Smith cast a cold, experienced eye on Pollard and thought, maybe. At Seabiscuit’s stall, Pollard took a cube of sugar from his pocket. Seabiscuit took his time: “There came a tentative sound of nostrils drawing the air, weighing the scent. A black muzzle materialized, licked up the sugar, and touched the jockey’s shoulder.” The touch on the shoulder, yes, like a lover’s caress. Another man-and-horse epiphany.
Race after race, anxiety among the handlers; the owner’s tears for loss of prestige and purse and celebrations as elaborate as weddings for a major victory. Laura Hillenbrand, in her microscopic recreations of every moment from the morning workout, the balking steeds at the starting gate, the midstretch to the finish line and back to the paddock for a chat with horse, rider, trainer, and owners, seems as close as Clem McCarthy on the radio to actions that took place over sixty years ago.
The Santa Anita Handicap of 1937 with Pollard on Seabiscuit: sixty thousand fans and the world’s largest purse. In the midstretch, Seabiscuit a full length ahead of the threatening runner, Rosemont:
Without warning, horse and rider lost focus. Abruptly, inexplicably, Pollard wavered. He lay down his whip on Seabiscuit’s shoulder and left it there…. With just a few yards to go, Pollard broke out of his limbo…. They drew even again. Rosemont and Seabiscuit flew under the wire together.
The stewards, after waiting for the photo, declared Rosemont the winner. Pollard, his lapse like that of Count Vronsky on Frou-Frou, offered a lame excuse, not generally believed. However, the trainer and owner retained him and he survived to ride again and to receive impressive injuries. It happened on a horse with the name of Fair Knightess to indicate she was a filly. (The naming of horses often occasions the spell-check bell on a writing machine, but not necessary when you come upon the horses who bore the names Nijinsky, Nureyev, and Stravinsky.) With Pollard on top, the forelegs of Fair Knightess were kicked out from under her by another horse caught in a bottleneck. “She pitched into a somersault at forty miles per hour…. Pollard went down with her…. The left side of Pollard’s chest was crushed” and he had broken ribs, internal injuries, a concussion.
Seabiscuit proved to be an exceptional runner, winning seven consecutive stakes races, with the all-time record eight, and many other spectacular trophies. In racing history, the hyperbole about the greatly successful horses is startling and, we must trust, factually true, at least on the adding machine. “In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year’s number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. It wasn’t Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou Gehrig, Howard Hughes, or Clark Gable. The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn’t even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit.”
A king must acknowledge the monarch across the border with just as many castles, decorated carriages, soldiers lined up for a ceremonial march in the square, and thoughts of border encroachments. The rival royal horse was War Admiral, son of Man o’War, winner of the Triple Crown—and handsome, prodigious, violent. It was felt there should be a one-on-one contest between the two, leading to dramatic negotiations among the owners about the purse, the post weight, the chosen track, the time of year. Owners, metaphorically arrayed like the jockeys in the silks of their stables, also take unto themselves in their English shoes the glory of their thoroughbred’s velocity. At last the “great race” was set for Belmont, on Long Island:
Belmont officials, anticipating the largest crowd ever to attend a horse race in America, had… spent $30,000 to publicize the race and prepare the track…. Millions had been wagered. Silversmiths had already cast an elaborate trophy…. The horses were on the cover of Newsweek….
But the race was called off when, a few hours before post time, the trainer noted a soreness in Seabiscuit’s knees: horses are valuable property and surprisingly vulnerable, or not surprisingly. War Admiral in a race left part of his forehoof on the track and had to retire until it grew back. The vulnerable Pollard, who was to ride Seabiscuit in the scratched race, later, galloping a horse that slammed into a barn, had his right leg nearly sheared off below the knee.
A second race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral arrived and once more, almost at the starting gate, Seabiscuit was withdrawn with a sore tendon and a sore, booing crowd. At last at Alfred Vanderbilt’s Pimlico track in Maryland, the two horses met: again, huge crowds, “keyed to the highest tension I have ever seen in sport,” according to Grantland Rice. At the White House radio, “FDR was so absorbed in the broadcast that he kept a roomful of advisors waiting.” Seabiscuit won: “Tens of thousands of men, women, and children vaulted over the rails, poured onto the track, and began running after him.” Pollard followed the race in a hospital room. My horse, my horse.
An old peasant and his old, rickety horse caught in a malevolent snow storm, immobilized as trees in a lunar landscape; and not to melt in the rising sun. Gentleman, after a night of cards and drink, rousing the sleeping valet to saddle the dreaming horse, give him a kick and the whip and get the slurping clubmen home. Cats and dogs are pets, but the horse has ever been and ever will be a servant. The twentieth century sent the creature into obsolescence, except for private riding, certain urban duties, useful servitude in poor, backward parts of the world. The animal remained in history for racing, for polo, for sport, which, by a ferocious stretch of the name, includes an activity known as horsepulling, a span of fun-time in country fairs such as I have seen in Maine.
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”