THOROUGHBRED RACING : Famed Calumet Farm Is Purchased by DeKwiatkowski for $17 Million
When Lucille Wright Markey died in 1982, her estate included historic Calumet Farm, with an estimated value of $21 million.
Last year, with Calumet filing for bankruptcy when its debts soared well past the $100 million, a potential buyer estimated that the Lexington, Ky., farm was worth $35 million. “It’s the best land in the country for raising horses,” Ron Volkman said.
The trouble was, heavily mortgaged Calumet, once a racing dynasty, didn’t have horses anymore. They were sold to raise money to satisfy creditors. The Calumet stallions, who included 1990 horse of the year Criminal Type, had been moved to other farms.
“Absolute Auction,” read the yellow sign with black lettering inside one of the farm’s white fences, and Thursday, among a curiosity-driven crowd of about 3,000 that gathered under a tent at Calumet for the official end to racing’s longest-running era, there were only two bidders for the property.
Starting at $10 million, Henryk deKwiatkowski, a prominent owner of thoroughbreds, and Issam Fares, who owns an adjacent farm about half the size of Calumet, bid against each other for about 20 minutes, with Calumet’s 770 acres going to DeKwiatkowski for $17 million.
“When I saw this place being dismantled, this was offensive to me,” DeKwiatkowski said. “This was the chance of a lifetime, to own this farm. I am speechless. I am ecstatic. This is a nice investment for my children, and not a whisker will be changed. I love horses, and I will not change one blade of grass.”
DeKwiatkowski, 64, is a Polish-born aeronautical engineer who started his own aircraft company in the United States in the late 1950s. He began buying yearlings in 1976 and raced Conquistador Cielo, the Belmont Stakes winner and horse of the year in 1982. He also won the Belmont in 1986 with Danzig Connection.
DeKwiatkowski, who has residences in New York, Florida and the Bahamas, won the Yellow Ribbon Stakes at Santa Anita with Sabin in 1984, and his De La Rose was voted female grass champion in 1981. Danzig, who became a leading stallion when an injury ended his undefeated racing career after three starts, campaigned for DeKwiatkowski.
The $17 million probably didn’t drive Fares from the bidding; months ago, he had expressed concern about the maintenance costs connected with running Calumet. In an interview after his Miss Alleged won the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs last November, Fares said this was one of the drawbacks to owning the farm.
The two-day auction ends today. After DeKwiatkowski bought the main parcel, he spent $210,000 on another 44 acres at Calumet and paid $200,000 for the rights to the Calumet name. Among 400 other items in the auction, including trophies, was an odd-looking 1939 horse van that transported Whirlaway and Citation, plus other Calumet runners, to their appointed rounds in the 1940s. The Kentucky Derby Museum paid $72,000 for the vehicle.
Calumet raced eight Kentucky Derby winners, and both Whirlaway and Citation also swept the Triple Crown.
In the 1980s, however, with no immediate family members interested in running the farm, J.T. Lundy, who had married a Wright, took over as president of Calumet Farm. Lundy spent freely, improving the farm and buying expensive stallions that didn’t pan out. He fired John Veitch, Calumet’s best trainer since the Joneses--Ben and his son Jimmy--turned out their assembly line of champions in the 1940s and ‘50s.
Veitch trained Alydar, who became a powerful--if overworked--stallion under Lundy. When Alydar was destroyed after suffering a stall injury in November 1990, Calumet collected a reported $20 million in insurance, but the farm lost its best collateral, and the banks began closing in. Even before Alydar’s death, Lundy peddled one of the stallion’s sons, Strike The Gold, who went on to win last year’s Kentucky Derby. That victory underscored the desperate straits in which Calumet found itself.
“Out of the 25 years my dad and I were at Calumet, we made money 24 years,” Jimmy Jones, 84, said not long ago. “The only time we didn’t come out ahead was one of those (World War II) years. When I left (in 1964), Calumet didn’t owe a dime. It’s a terrible thing, what they owe now. It was mismanagement. What else could you call it?”
Like those who went to Calumet Thursday to reminisce rather than buy, Jones prefers the memories of the farm’s heyday. “I’m older than California, and Citation was the best horse I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Whirlaway needed certain conditions to win sometimes. Citation would win under any conditions.”
When Oscar Otis, 86, died Thursday at Huntington Memorial Hospital, his pre-written obituary couldn’t be found at the Daily Racing Form, where he had worked for about 30 years before his retirement in the early 1970s.
Otis, whose first experience with newspapers was selling them as a kid in downtown San Diego, said several years ago that he had written his own obituary and left it at the Racing Form. “I’ve seen so many obituaries that were messed up,” he said. “I want to make sure mine is right.”
Otis’ career in racing began long before the Form, as a turf correspondent for newspapers in San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles, including The Times. He covered races at 52 tracks, announced races at Del Mar and in the San Francisco Bay Area, wrote a novel with a Kentucky Derby backdrop and was president of the National Turf Writers Assn. in 1965.
It was Otis, after getting word from the track physician, who announced to a crowd at Bay Meadows in 1936 that jockey Ralph Neves had died of injuries suffered in a spill. In one of racing’s most fantastic stories, Neves got off a table in a nearby morgue, took a cab back to the track and walked into the jockeys’ room before the day was over.
One day at Del Mar, when Bing Crosby and his partners owned the track, Otis mangled the name of actress Greer Garson.
Minutes later, Crosby stuck his head into Otis’ booth and said: “She’s downstairs, and she’s mad as hell.”
Otis rushed downstairs and apologized to the actress.
Jane Dempsey, a friend of Otis’, has a copy of his unpublished memoirs, and she said it ends: “So to any and all who have come this far with me, I wish you good luck, good racing and may the fortune of a good horse be yours.”
A burial service will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at Forest Lawn. Instead of flowers, contributions to the retired horsemen’s fund of the California Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Assn. are requested.
Horse Racing Notes
Big Sur is the 3-1 favorite and Treekster the second choice at 7-2 among 11 3-year-olds running Saturday in the $500,000 Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway Park. The field, in post-position order: Waki Warrior, Great Eliminator, Lil E. Tee, Quiet Enjoyment, Saint Ballado, Big Sur, Just Like Perfect, Queen of Triumph, Treekster, Snappy Landing and Vying Victor. There will be betting on the race at Santa Anita. . . . In another stake for 3-year-olds Saturday, Pine Bluff will carry 122 pounds, five to 10 more than his seven rivals, in the $125,000 Rebel at Oaklawn Park. Others running include Fifth Business and Desert Force.
Thirteen older horses are entered in Saturday’s $75,000 Miramontes Handicap at Santa Anita, a 1 1/8-mile race scheduled to be run on grass. Flying Continental and Masterclass, at 120 pounds apiece, are the high weights. Rounding out the field are Dominion Gold, Qathif, Lord Charmer, Irish Empire, River Traffic, Latin American, Another Review, Scottish Castle, Carnival Baby, Big Barton and Xcaret.
The cover price of the Daily Racing Form will go up 35 cents, to $2.85, starting April 6. With tax, the on-track price locally will be $3.10.
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.