The day before his Secretariat colt was to go into the ring at Keeneland's blue-ribbon summer auction, Texan Nelson Bunker Hunt stood in the shade of barn 20 wolfing down a generous helping of orange-and-pineapple sherbet. Hunt is so rich that every time he enters Kentucky, Fort Knox automatically becomes the state's second-richest place. Last week, all around the sales pavilion the rumors about Hunt and his colt were as hot as the sultry bluegrass weather. For sure, went the whispers, the yearling sales world record of $715,000 would be gone with the wind. And maybe, just maybe, this might be what the Kentucky breeders had dreamed about all their lives—a million-dollar colt.
"Oh, I don't know," said Hunt, as cool as the sherbet in his plastic cup. "It's sorta like the owner's the last one to know. I can't tell what the colt will bring. I heard the odds in England were 7 to 2 that he won't bring a million."
As Hunt talked, a groom with the name of Hunt's Bluegrass Farm stitched on the back of his green coveralls led the colt out of his stall. He is the image of his famous daddy, the 1973 Triple Crown winner, with a copper coat gleaming like a new penny and splashes of white on his head and all four legs. For every horseman who tried to find flaws in the yearling's conformation—"He's sort of big and gross"—others pointed out that his mother, Charming Alibi, was also the dam of Dahlia, the world's leading money-winning mare.
As if to remind everyone what such breeding might produce, outside the barn were the three gold trophies Hunt's stable recently won in a seven-day span—Empery in the English Derby, Dahlia in the Hollywood Invitational and Youth in the French Derby.
"I thought about keeping this colt to race myself," said Hunt. "I'm more interested in racing than selling horses. But I've got so many, I've got to sell some. Otherwise, they get to be like the rabbits of Australia—they'll cover the earth. But he's a good horse and I might keep an interest in him. I understand that everybody and their uncle are trying to put together a syndicate to buy him—the Canadians, the Australians, the Europeans. I might just possibly take a part of a syndicate."
When Claiborne Farm's Seth Hancock syndicated Secretariat before his Triple Crown races in 1973, Hunt was offered the chance to buy one of the 32 shares that sold for $190,000 each. "Yeah, but I was not smart enough to accept," said Hunt. "I had never seen Secretariat run and that sounded like pretty big money based on his 2-year-old year, so I declined the issue." However, after Secretariat proved a champion on the racetrack, Hunt bought a breeding season from one of the syndicate members specifically for Charming Alibi.
As planned by Hancock, the original syndicate included only two commercial breeders. The others ostensibly would keep their sons and daughters of Secretariat to race. However, after all the inevitable deals were made, it became obvious that quite a few Secretariats would be put on the open market.
The race to sell the first at public auction ended in a dead heat last fall when breeders E. Barry Ryan and E. V. Benjamin put their two weanlings on the block at Keeneland (SI, Nov. 10, 1975). Ryan's filly, out of the mare Zest II, brought $200,000; Benjamin's colt, out of Chou Croute, sold for a quarter of a million. That was a world record for a weanling, but only about half the price Benjamin expected.
Ever since, there has been considerable speculation about what Secretariat yearlings would bring. Besides Hunt's colt, six others were being offered at Keeneland—five fillies and a colt, which was part of the Tom Gentry consignment. The Gentry colt had better conformation than the Hunt colt, some of the experts said, but the pedigree on his dam's side was considerably weaker, and he didn't have Secretariat's copper coat. "Wish he had his daddy's color," said Gentry. "Think I could spray him?" (Most of Secretariat's offspring closely resemble him, which is considered a good sign by horsemen. Stallions that pass on their looks often sire successful offspring.)
Partly because he had more selling to do, but mostly because he has a lot of P. T. Barnum in his soul, Tom Gentry turned his barn at Keeneland into a carnival. While Hunt's sales methods were limited to the traditional come-ons—a few modest signs and the gold trophies on the table—Gentry gave out pens, cigarette lighters, money clips, catalog covers and walking sticks. He dressed his Secretariat colt's grooms in blue-and-white striped caps and shirts emblazoned with the colt's hip number: 308. Walking around his barn in baggy plaid pants and brandishing one of his walking sticks, Gentry kept everyone amused except the purists who view Keeneland—and racing—as something sacrosanct.