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The Star That Fell To Earth
William Nack
December 20, 1982
Like a meteor, Conquistador Cielo, here gamboling at stud, flared brilliantly. Then, in a race he shouldn't have run, he imperiled his syndicate's $36.4 million gamble
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December 20, 1982

The Star That Fell To Earth

Like a meteor, Conquistador Cielo, here gamboling at stud, flared brilliantly. Then, in a race he shouldn't have run, he imperiled his syndicate's $36.4 million gamble

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For anyone involved in breeding and raising thoroughbreds, that was strong stuff, but what had happened was quite extraordinary. Five days before the Belmont, hardly anyone outside of Stephens' shed knew his horse's name, and now Cielo was all that anyone involved in New York racing was talking about. A month later he enhanced his reputation by smoking through three-quarters of a mile in a sensational 1:08 3/5 en route to winning the Dwyer Stakes by four lengths. Stephens then shipped him upstate to Saratoga. That is where the trouble began. And it wasn't confined to Cielo's left foreleg.

Ever since he'd seen Cielo win the Metropolitan, Hancock had wanted to syndicate him and to stand him at Claiborne Farm. The Belmont Stakes merely quickened Hancock's desire for Cielo, and he began figuring in July that he would offer $30 million for the horse when he met de Kwiatkowski at Saratoga to negotiate the sale following the Aug. 8 Jim Dandy Stakes. They had agreed to do no bargaining until then because of tax rules: An owner must keep a horse for two years for profits from his sale to be taxed as capital gains. It would mean a lot of money for de Kwiatkowski. The Jim Dandy would mark two years to the day since he had bought Cielo.

Hancock says that de Kwiatkowski told him on Monday, the first day of the negotiations, that Nelson Bunker Hunt and the Aga Khan had each offered $40 million for the horse. Both men deny ever having made an offer for Cielo. It was, however, already well known that Windfields Farm of Chesapeake City, Md. had offered $33 million. Cielo had an abundance of the one quality American breeders covet in a sire: speed. Cielo also was the son of a brilliant sire, another attractive attribute, and he was a poised, tractable, even-tempered animal, also desirable traits. The one shortcoming, of course, was the weak female line through K D Princess. "I could go higher than $30 million," Hancock told a writer at the Keeneland sales in July, "but I won't. I don't think he's worth it."

Hancock watched Conquistador Cielo win the Jim Dandy by a length. He saw that the colt was unable to shake loose from a horse named Lejoli, but the consensus was that Maple had kept Cielo under tight wraps. But in fact Cielo was beginning to suffer from a problem that would force Stephens to take a calculated risk in bringing the colt to the Travers 13 days later.

On the Monday after the Jim Dandy, Hancock and de Kwiatkowski met at Stephens' barn and then went to the Reading Room. Over breakfast they began negotiating for the syndication of Cielo. Though Hancock knew that de Kwiatkowski had ties to the E.P. Taylor family, which owns Windfields, he says he felt that he had the inside track. Hancock had syndicated Danzig, de Kwiatkowski's dazzling if crippled (from a knee injury in his early training) son of Northern Dancer, and Danzig was still at Claiborne. The farm also boarded de Kwiatkowski's mares. "I figured we had some sort of in," Hancock says.

In background, in personality and in style, the two negotiators offered sharp contrasts. Hancock, a Kentucky native and the son of one of America's most influential breeders, the late A.B. (Bull) Hancock, was born and bred to raising thoroughbreds and syndicating stallions. Bull had attracted some of racing's wealthiest clientele to Claiborne, and since World War II it had become one of the most prosperous thoroughbred nurseries in the world, a showcase that was home to fashionably bred mares and the desirable stallions who served them. When Bull died unexpectedly in 1972, the job of running Claiborne devolved upon Seth, then 23, a soft-spoken, intense young man who wore his responsibilities heavily.

The younger Hancock's first major syndication was that of Secretariat in 1973 for $6.08 million, at the time a world-record price. Since then he had syndicated and brought to Claiborne about 15 other stallions. Many of the farm's clients had been doing business there for years, boarding and breeding their mares and patronizing the farm's studs. They viewed Hancock much as they viewed their investment bankers. The relationship was based on trust and a handshake, with the clients seeking Hancock's advice and depending on him to provide investment opportunities—as, for instance, in stallion syndicates.

It was a world the 58-year-old Polish-born de Kwiatkowski (pronounced de-fiat-KAUF-ski) had only recently joined. A romantic figure with a colorful—some say colored—past, de Kwiatkowski recalls the body of his father, an officer in the Polish cavalry, being brought to the family home in Poznan in 1939. He had been shot off his horse and killed by the Germans as he attacked an invading tank with a saber. As a boy of 15, de Kwiatkowski says, he was captured by the Soviets shortly after his father's death and taken by cattle car to a prison camp in Siberia, where he cut down trees and worked in a prison kitchen and from where, he says, he escaped in 1942 and then made his way to England by way of Iran and South Africa. En route, he says, he survived rat bites on a coal barge and the sinking of the Empress of Canada, on which he was a passenger when it was torpedoed off the coast of Sierra Leone.

Once in England, he joined the Polish Squadron of the Royal Air Force. According to an extract of his military record, de Kwiatkowski enlisted in the RAF in April of 1943 and served as a wireless operator.

Tales of his exploits in World War II make marvelous reading. In a recent magazine article that identified him as a Spitfire pilot, de Kwiatkowski was quoted as saying, "Our job was to intercept the V-2 rockets the Germans were hitting England with and tip them off course with our wings. It was delicate work." De Kwiatkowski may have been referring to a tactic used against German buzz bombs, rather than the rockets, but even so it is not at all clear how he came to be at the controls of a Spitfire, a single-seater fighter. In a recent telephone interview, in which he claimed he was reading from the extract of his military record, de Kwiatkowski said he served in the RAF as a copilot as well as a wireless operator. When he later provided the writer with the extract, the document confirmed only that he was a wireless operator, and mentioned nothing about his being a copilot.

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