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Clouds over Calumet Farm
William F. Reed
September 02, 1991
The Bluegrass breeding ground of nine Kentucky Derby winners is struggling to stay alive
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September 02, 1991

Clouds Over Calumet Farm

The Bluegrass breeding ground of nine Kentucky Derby winners is struggling to stay alive

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Every day the tourists drive past Calumet Farm, near Lexington, Ky., just as they have for years, but now many feel sadness as they gaze over those historic 828 lush green acres, tree-shaded lanes, red-trimmed barns and miles of white fences. No farm has dominated U.S. horse racing as Calumet did in the 1940s and '50s, when its stable included such legendary runners as Whirlaway and Citation. On July 11, to the shock and dismay of an industry that still reveres the Calumet name and tradition, the farm filed a Chapter 11 petition to reorganize under the protection of a bankruptcy court. With its reputation so stained and its future so murky, it's hard to believe that Calumet will ever regain the glory that was.

A lot of people must shoulder the blame for the fall of Calumet, perhaps none more so than J.T. Lundy, who took over as the farm's president in 1982, upon the death of his wife's grandmother, Lucille Parker Wright Markey, the Calumet matriarch for more than 50 years. When Markey died, the farm was debt-free and turning a profit. Less than nine years later, when Lundy resigned under criticism on April 3 of this year, Calumet was more than $70 million in debt and besieged by creditors who eventually filed more than $27 million in lawsuits.

Even this spring's Kentucky Derby victory by Strike the Gold, a colt born and raised at Calumet, only momentarily lifted the gloom. It was nice, of course, that Calumet had bred a record ninth Derby winner, but it was too bad that Strike the Gold wasn't able to run in the farm's famed devil's-red and blue silks. Last September, as part of a plan to ease Calumet's cash-flow difficulties, Lundy had sold Strike the Gold to a partnership headed by B. Giles Brophy, a New York City securities trader.

It will take years for the lawyers, bankers and accountants to sort out everything that happened at Calumet during Lundy's tenure as president of the farm. But a part of the saga is that behind its breathtaking facade, Calumet was never the paradise it seemed. Within the family, and especially between Markey and Lundy, there was enough bitterness and hatred to provide the script for an equine version of Gone with the Wind.

By almost all accounts, Lucille Parker Wright Markey was the image of a grand Southern lady—gracious, kind, courtly and generous. Especially generous. Under the terms of her will, a charitable foundation was established to fund medical research. By the time the trust expires, in 1997, it will have distributed some $460 million, second only to The Howard Hughes Medical Institute among the world's medical philanthropies.

Lucille Parker was married to Warren Wright Sr. in 1919, when she was 22. He was more than two decades her senior. His family owned the Calumet Baking Powder Company of Chicago, which Warren's father, William Monroe Wright, eventually sold to General Foods in 1928, just beating the Depression.

The elder Wright, who founded Calumet Farm in 1924, had at first raised and trained standardbred horses. The year he died, 1931, the farm's Calumet Butler won the Hambletonian, the top race in trotting. (Calumet is the only farm to have sent out winners of both the Hambletonian and the Kentucky Derby.) Nevertheless, Warren Sr. and Lucille converted Calumet to a thoroughbred farm that year and set out to win the Derby.

It took them 10 years. Their most astute decisions along the way were buying a yearling colt named Bull Lea for $14,000, in 1936, and hiring a Missourian named B.A. (Plain Ben) Jones to be their trainer, in 1939. Bull Lea turned out to be one of the most successful breeding stallions in history, the foundation of the Calumet dynasty; and Jones, along with his son Jimmy, made the devil's-red and blue the most famous and most respected colors in the nation. From 1941 through 1961, Calumet won two Triple Crowns (Whirlaway's in '41 and Citation's in '48) and seven Kentucky Derbys and topped the thoroughbred earnings list 12 times.

Although Lucille's main contribution to Calumet's success had been naming the horses, her husband left the farm in her hands rather than in those of their adopted son, Warren Jr. "[Warren Sr.] set her up as the lifetime tenant in charge of running it, or she had the right to sell it if she so desired," says Margaret Glass, who served as Calumet's office manager from 1940 through 1982. But upon Lucille's death, according to the will, if the farm had not been sold, Calumet would go to Warren Jr., his wife, Bertha, and their four children.

Warren Sr. died on Dec. 28, 1950. Two years later Lucille married Gene Markey, a retired Navy commodore, Hollywood scriptwriter and bon vivant who had been married previously to three of the world's most beautiful actresses—Joan Bennett, Hedy Lamarr and Myrna Loy. Sometime after the marriage, Markey—who was great friends with World War II hero Admiral William (Bull) Halsey—was retroactively promoted to the rank of rear admiral, and thereafter he insisted on being introduced as "Admiral Markey."

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