Only three stables in the history of U.S. Thoroughbred racing have ever won a million dollars in one year. The owners of two of these celebrated outfits, Mrs. Gene Markey ( Calumet Farm) and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, now have company in racing's most exclusive club. The new member, who joined last year, is a lean 6-foot-1, 55-year-old weather-beaten and deadly serious Arizona-born cowboy ("I am not an ex-cowboy; I am a cowboy") named Rex Cooper Ellsworth (see cover, and below with his son Kumen). And he is as different from his New York-Florida- Europe-oriented millionaire confreres as the California sand that smothers his 440-acre ranch in the Los Angeles suburb of Chino is from the bluegrass in the manicured pastures of the Calumet and Whitney farms in Lexington, Ky.
Rex Ellsworth is racing's most controversial personality. Last year 51 horses carrying his black-and-red silks won $1,154,454 by mid-September, when they stopped racing so that Rex and his trainer, Meshach Adams Tenney, could go home to run the roundups for 2� months on Ellsworth's 1,000 square miles of rugged cattle country in Arizona and New Mexico. Two of Ellsworth's biggest horses last season were the handicap star Prove It, who won $348,750, and the Arlington-Washington Futurity winner Candy Spots ($158,312), the latter already a winter book choice for this spring's Kentucky Derby and a heavy favorite for next week's Santa Anita Derby. When it was suggested to Ellsworth in Chicago late last summer that a fall campaign in New York and New Jersey would bring him another few hundred thousand in purse winnings and some more honors for Prove It and Candy Spots, he replied with typical forthrightness, "What is the point of going east when I already feel that we have the best 2-year-old and the best older horse? I don't have to go to New York to prove that to myself. Besides, I look forward all year to roundup time. It's what Meshach and I want to do in September more than go to New York or anywhere else."
Ellsworth and Tenney so far haven't needed the prizes of New York's big apple. They have struck it rich in California. In 1939, six years after Rex and his brother Heber had spent $600 on some fillies and mares in Lexington, Ky., the Ellsworth name first appeared on racing's earnings list. The stable won $14,400. The total since then is just under $6 million, and in the last 10 years alone Rex has taken more than half of this amount—$3,745,897—out of purses at southern California's two great tracks, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Ellsworth figures he has parlayed his original $600 investment into Thoroughbred holdings worth $12,640,000. He is the world's largest nonmarket breeder and, with about 500 head at his disposal, he is unquestionably owner of the world's largest active racing stable.
Rex Ellsworth is never sure how many horses he has or where they all are on any given day. Recently, as he walked slowly around one of the 32 long, narrow pens where some mares and their foals were resting in the Chino dust, he totted up his stock: 200 mares (25 of which came from the Samuel D. Riddle estate and are owned in partnership with Mrs. Helen Alvarez Hill and C. Ray Robinson), some 35 older horses (including Prove It, Olden Times and such potential dams as Bushel-n-Peck and Wish n Wait), 90 to 95 3-year-olds (including Candy Spots, Space Skates, Three Links and dozens that haven't even started yet), 40 2-year-olds (survivors of the 1961 crop so hard hit by virus abortion that more than 40 foals were lost, including 23 sired by Ellsworth's star stallion Khaled and another seven or eight by Nigromante) and some 90 yearlings. Another 100 or so foals are due this spring and summer. Because each stable is allowed only 40 stalls at the southern California tracks, Trainer Tenney spends considerable time during each race meeting platooning his runners between Chino and the stable area.
To achieve such real and potential power, Ellsworth has lived for the last 30 years arm in arm with every friendly banker he could find. "It's tough to figure the total value of my holdings, because the banks are so involved in my operations," he admits candidly. "'I've got about 1,000 square miles, some of it in partnership with Meshach, some in partnership with Bill Shoemaker and some that I lease from the Government. But the banks own so much of it that I couldn't put a price on what I actually own myself. For example, I recently bought another ranch for $3 million, but only had to put $250,000 down." The 20,000 head of cattle on Rex's ranches today include Herefords, some Black Angus and a new breed he developed himself to which he jokingly refers as his Mortgage-lifter Breed. Halt Angus, quarter Holstein and quarter Brahma, they were bred for conditions on some parts of his property where the land is rough and the cattle are forced to go a long way for water.
Drawing from bank loans, purse earnings and cattle income, Ellsworth has spent about $3.5 million buying Thoroughbred stock to build his stable. Some $2.5 million of this went, at various times between 1946 and 1958, toward purchases from the vastly successful holdings of the late Aga and Aly Khan. Most of the rest was spent at dispersals held by Louis B. Mayer, Harry Warner and Sam Riddle. Ellsworth gives the major share of credit for his success to the acquisition of nearly 100 Aga Khan mares, representing the finest bloodlines in Europe. Ellsworth's own stallions and those in which he has shares are, with the exception of Swaps, hardly familiar to Americans, either. There is Khaled, of course, sire of Swaps and of 48 other U.S. stakes winners. Most of the other sires—who include Lychnus, Manantial, Toulouse Lautrec, Negotiation, Antonio Canale, Yatasto, The Shoe and Nigromante (who died last spring)—also are foreign-bred.
Come roundup time next September, Ellsworth and Tenney may be back on the ranch, but long before that they will have launched a powerful, carefully plotted assault on U.S. racing. This is the year that Ellsworth plans to establish himself beyond doubt—in the public mind and on the money-earned list—as the No. 1 owner-breeder in the nation. This is the year the man from the West plans to take over.
Ellsworth's second front may be established on a beachhead at Florida's Gulfstream Park if Candy Spots comes east for the March 30 Florida Derby. Later he and the most promising of Rex's other runners will likely run in New York. The main California string, as usual, will ship to Chicago, and a third group is at Caliente. "Some think I have a grudge against eastern racing," he said recently, "but it's not true. On the contrary, I feel there's more opportunity in the East because there's more racing. I haven't wanted to race in New York until I was ready. I wanted to have the best possible representation."
If the Ellsworth-Tenney plans are clear and their motives avowed, the two men nevertheless remain a puzzlement to fellow horsemen as well as the racing public. Perhaps the chief cause is their unorthodox handling of their stock. Some horsemen say they are lunatics who believe that a stout two-by-four is a basic part of a trainer's equipment. Others claim they are touched with genius. " Mesh Tenney can make a horse stand on its head if he wants to—he's that good," says Trainer Charlie Whittingham. "He's the best horseman in the country," says Jockey Shoemaker, "and his horses are the best schooled I know. I've been on hundreds of his horses, good ones and bad ones, and not one of them was ever a bad gate horse."
"I don't think people begrudge them their success," says another California owner. "I think they are respected for their knowledge and ability. My only knock against them is the way they treat horses." A prominent Easterner goes further: "There's nothing I admire about Rex Ellsworth, and his handling of horses disgusts me." Says Owner-Breeder Neil McCarthy, "Sure, they discipline horses severely. They run their ranch like a cattle ranch, because that's the cattleman's way of doing things."