It did not seem to be the best time for Nelson Bunker Hunt to be completing an interview, but there he was, returning a call from his Dallas office on the day after the stock market had gone blooey.
Asked about the market's nose-dive, Hunt said: "It doesn't bother me. I don't have too much money tied up in stocks."
But the 61-year-old Hunt and his younger brothers--William Herbert and Lamar--had money tied up in much of the world's silver in the 1970s and they have vast oil investments now, in a sliding industry. Consequently, there would appear to be no good time to talk to Bunker Hunt, even when the subject is his real love, thoroughbred horses.
But Hunt's horses--the ones he races and those that he breeds and sells to others--are doing better than ever. Twice the winner of the Eclipse Award as the best American breeder, Hunt's Bluegrass Farm in Lexington, Ky., bred horses that earned $5 million last year, and in a 12-month period that ended Sept. 1, he bred 22 horses that won stakes races.
With horses that Hunt has bred, or bought and then raced himself, he has earned about $2.5 million in purses this year. That, according to the Daily Racing Form, ranks him behind only Gene Klein on that list.
All of this success in the horse world will come to an end, however, with a dispersal at Keeneland Jan. 9-10, when 570 horses--broodmares, 2-year-olds and yearlings--will be sold at auction, along with Hunt's interests in about 50 stallions. Also to be sold are 8,000 acres of farm land that cover six counties in central Kentucky. Eventually, Hunt's racing stock is expected to go to auction.
The Hunt family's Placid Oil Co. is operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which has necessitated Bunker's equine sellout.
Bunker Hunt has faced serious business reversals before. He and his brothers probably lost $1 billion when silver prices hit bottom. But other than eating--before he discovered the Pritikin diet, it was not unusual to see Bunker in the Santa Anita walking ring with a box of popcorn in his hand--Hunt derives no greater pleasure than traveling widely to see one of his horses run in a major race.
Hunt has handled adversity with equanimity in the past, and he seems to be accepting the loss of this personal empire philosophically. After the silver crisis he said something worthy of Bartlett's collection of quotations: "A billion dollars isn't what it used to be."
Hunt seemed relieved to be talking about horses instead of his business pressures. Uncharacteristically, he and his brothers recently talked for days for an article that ran for eight pages in the New York Times Magazine.
He said he never read the story. "I gave up reading stories about me a long time ago," he said. "If they're bad, they make you mad, and if they're good, I find them embarrassing."
Talking about his horses the other day, Hunt said: "There's some sadness. But I'm not sitting at home brooding about it. Sometimes you buy and sometimes you sell, and this is the time to sell. It's the logical thing to do."
It was Hunt's wife, Caroline, who prodded him into leaving racing.
"She's been after me to cut down," Hunt said. "She said to me that at least I ought to unload half of the horses I have. But it's kind of hard to sell half of anything. My problem with horses is that I've liked every one I've ever had. But anyhow, I'm going to sell them all, and try to concentrate on my oil business."
Reminiscent of actor Ben Gazzara in "Run for Your Life," the old television series, Hunt is cramming as much horse activity as he can into the final days.
He has been at Del Mar and Santa Anita several times, and last weekend he was in Toronto to see a horse named Swink run--though not too well--in the Rothmans International, a race Hunt has won three times. On Oct. 31, he'll run Motley, a French-based horse, at Laurel, Md., in an attempt to win the Washington D.C. International for the fourth time.
"That's Motley, as in Motley County, Texas," Hunt said. "Not as in (the rock group) Motley Crue."
Hunt is phasing himself out of the game at a time when his operation is at an apex on both the racing and breeding fronts.
He is not the only one leaving. James and Virginia Binger's Tartan Stable, which has farms in both Kentucky and Florida, and Warner Jones, a prominent Kentucky breeder, are having dispersal sales in November. Financial problems have left commercial breeders such as Spendthrift Farm and Tom Gentry with doubtful futures, and many Kentucky farms are for sale because of the slumping bloodstock market.
Will racing recover from these voids?
"There'll always be new guys," Hunt said. "Allen Paulson has been around in recent years, spending a lot of money. So has Carl Icahn."
Hunt is belittling his own importance to the industry. Since 1964, he has bred close to 1,500 horses, 132 of the stakes winners. He owns farms in Texas and New Zealand, besides Kentucky, and at one point he was running horses in seven countries.
Said Nick Nicholson, executive vice president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Assn.: "I don't think racing can replace important people like Bunker Hunt, Warner Jones and the Bingers. Their contributions to racing transcend the mere existance of their farms.
"Warner Jones has been the chairman of Churchill Downs, an important member of the American Horse Council. John Nerud (Tartan's president) has been a spokesman for the business and a strong advocate for Florida breeding. Bunker Hunt stepped up to the plate when they were trying to organize the Breeders' Cup and he's been a major force in international racing."
Although his father, the legendary gambler and oil wildcatter, H.L. Hunt, gave Bunker a mare named Lady when he was 8, Bunker didn't buy his first horse until he was about 30. Ed Stephenson, who roomed with Hunt in prep school, took him to a Kentucky sale and Bunker wound up buying six horses.
They didn't amount to much, and Hunt even ran a claiming stable for a time, not concentrating on top horses until the 1960s.
A few years later, Hunt lost out trying to buy Vaguely Noble, an English-bred colt, but the successful bidder, Dr. Robert Franklyn, sold 50% interest to Hunt for about $170,000. Vaguely Noble won the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 1968 and then became an outstanding sire in Kentucky.
Dahlia, a daughter of Vaguely Noble, was a champion in England and the United States and will be sold in January. Vaguely Noble also sired Empery, who in 1976 won the English Derby for Hunt, five days before his stablemate, Youth, won the French Derby.
It is a tossup for Hunt whether Youth or Exceller has been his best horse. For bargains, the vote would have to go to Exceller, who was bought for $25,000 as a yearling and earned $1.6 million in the days before the $1-million races.
Although Exceller was a Vaguely Noble colt, he was not consigned to the 1974 sale by Hunt and was not even a horse on his prospective buy list. But when Hunt sent one of his trainers out of the sales pavilion to check another horse, he came back with the recommendation that they go for Exceller.
There were only two bids for the horse--an opening $24,000 and Hunt's $25,000, and after he got him, Hunt wanted to know what was wrong with the horse. The average price at the sale was almost $60,000.
It turned out that the only thing wrong with Exceller was that no matter how many races he won, the voters wouldn't award him a championship.
After a 3-year-old season in which he won major races in England, France and Canada, Exceller came to America under trainer Charlie Whittingham in 1978 and won six major races on both coasts, beating the two Triple Crown champions, Affirmed and Seattle Slew, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. Whittingham scratched his bald head when Exceller won none of the postseason honors.
Exceller's fire-sale price tag was an extreme, but Hunt has never waded in to compete for the big-ticket yearlings that have been sold at Kentucky auctions in the 1980s. A man whose wealth was once estimated to be $16 billion--Forbes magazine's annual survey had him down to $400 million last year--Hunt is widely known as a stinter who flies coach instead of first class and drives his own car instead of using limousines.
Hunt once said that he couldn't afford to compete with the Middle East oil money that the sheiks brought to the Kentucky sales.
"I guess the most I ever paid for a yearling was the $375,000 I paid for a horse named Respectfully," he said. "The horse didn't win a race."
Swink, a Hunt-bred son of Vaguely Noble, and Rivlia are horses that could provide a successful last hurrah for the roly-poly Texan in the Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park on Nov. 21.
"I'm glad some of these horses are going good now," Hunt said. "They might help the prices of the broodmares at the sale."
Whittingham trains both of those horses. "Don't count Bunker out," the trainer said. "he's not out till he's out."
Hunt is already talking about racing some of his horses next year, including Talinum, the Flamingo winner who was injured shortly before the Kentucky Derby and hasn't raced since. Hunt has never won the Derby and in fact didn't start a horse in the race until 1982.
"Who knows what will happen?" Hunt said. "I'll always be a racing fan, no matter what happens. I've met a lot of good people in this game. There's a lot of people in this game that are way above average."