Red Smith visits Calumet Farm, 1956

Mar 23rd 2011 07:41 pm |

Red Smith

While browsing around, looking for something else entirely, I found a gem written by Red Smith prior to the 1956 Kentucky Derby. In the piece, Smith describes a trip to Lexington to visit Calumet Farm, the most successful racing and breeding operation in U.S. history.  When Smith visited Calumet, it was at its peak.  By the mid-1950s, they held trophies for just about every major race in the country and owned an unmatched roster of stallions and mares.

Here is a unique glimpse into Calumet, through the eyes of a sports writing legend:

In Louisville crowds were swelling, voices were rising and the hotel lobbies were beginning to look like a scene from the French Revolution. Here on the wide green acres of Calumet Farm was the peace that passeth understanding. Away, off on a wooded hillside, a band of mares grazed, each with a foal at her side. In big, sunny paddocks, the stallions rolled and romped alone.

A horse stabled at Churchill Downs knows when the Kentucky Derby is getting near, though he may be vague about the history of the race and perhaps couldn’t tell you which was Regret’s year or how much Donerail paid in the mutuals. He can tell there’s something stirring by the attention he is getting, the work he has to do, the crowds around his barn in the morning, the feel of excitement in the air. They know they’re going to race.

The Derby horses over here have known Louisville in May, but now they have Lexington and leisure. Their working days are done. The oats are clean and plentiful, the pastures broad and inviting, the mares agreeable. They never had it so good.

“We turned Citation and the others out this morning,” said Paul Ebelhardt, the farm manager. He was leading the way from the stallion barn to the paddocks. “Here’s Ponder,” he said.

The Derby winner of 1949 had been rolling in earth left by Wednesday’s rains. He wore a milk-chocolate mud pack over his dark bay coat and he was all full of himself eager to run. Being led to the paddock a few minutes earlier he had halted under the trees and reared joyously, shadow-boxing with his uplifted forelegs.

Across the rail fence, a visitor addressed him in confidential terms. “Hey, guy, what about that son of yours? He got any more chance than a Shetland pony?”

It seemed a priceless opportunity to get the word straight from the horses mouth, for Ponder is the sire of Needles, the probable Derby favorite, though Needles isn’t owned by Calumet and isn’t trained by Ben or Jimmy Jones, who put Ponder over seven years ago.

Looking back, it was diffucult to believe that any such time had passed, for Ben’s plaintive whimper was still fresh in memory. “If I could just get a piece of the purse,” he was saying that year in the days before the Derby, “but that little old horse of mine ain’t got no more chance than a Shetland pony.”

Those who belived Ben let Ponder “run loose” at $34 for $2 and saw him go barreling past 13 rivals, sweeping up from last place to win by three lengths. It set Joe Palmer to singing:

“It ain’t necessarily so,
“It ain’t necessarily so,
“When Ben says that Ponder
“Will finish up yonder
“It ain’t necessarily so”

In eighty-one Derbies, three races have been accounted for by father, son, and grandson. In 1928 Reigh Count charged down to the wire with Chick Lang on his withers in the silks of Mrs. John D. Hertz. In 1943 it was his son, Count Fleet, also flying the Hertz colors but with Johnny Longden in the saddle. In 1951 the third in line, Count Turf brought Conn McCreary home for Jack Amiel.

If Needles should win this time he would complete the hat trick for his family, for Ponder is the son of Pensive, the winner in 1944.

Obviously, none of this was of any concern to Ponder this morning. This is spring, a season when an old Derby winner’s fancy is otherwise occupied. When a man climbed the fence to snap a shank on him, the horse ducked playfully and, turning his back, saw a van coming up a lane toward the stallion barn.

“Come here, Jim,” the groom called, but Ponder ran toward the van. “Ohoh, he knows what that
van means. That’s how they bring the mares in. He’ll be back in a minute.

Ponder came back and posed. So did Citation in the paddock across the lane, and Sun Again in the next field and Mark Ye Well beyond him. They looked wonderful, all muddied up like kids at play, all bursting with health. Citation – well, he still looked like the richest horse that ever lived.

Indeed, for a visitor returning to Lexington after an absence of some years, all of this glorious blue grass country looked wonderful…”

Needles, the son of Ponder and the grandson of Pensive, did indeed win the 1956 Kentucky Derby. While Calumet was the breeder and owner of his sire and grand-sire, they didn’t own or breed Needles. During their period of dominance, Calumet did breed and own a record eight Kentucky Derby winners. They also have the distinction of breeding and owning two Triple Crown winners (Whirlaway and Citation), a feat unlikely to ever be repeated.*  As Red Smith walked around the Calumet grounds in 1956, he knew he was documenting a special place and it comes through clearly in this brilliant piece of writing.


* Belair Stud owned two Triple Crown winners: Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935).  Belair bred Gallant Fox but Claiborne Farm was the breeder of record for Omaha.

Red Smith, “If Needles Wins the Derby Tomorrow it Would Complete Family Hat Trick,” Ottawa Citizen, 4 May 1956

Check in to Hello Race Fans at the end of the week as they will be publishing a Ten Things You Should Know about the Dubai World Cup and a preview of Saturday’s races from Dubai.  Dubai World Cup Night is a fun morning of racing — not every day that you can watch high-class racing from the other side of the world while enjoying a bagel and coffee.

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in Calumet Farms,Kentucky Derby,Smith, Red,thoroughbred racing history

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