There are no oil paintings of Triple Crown winners Whirlaway and Citation on the living room walls; no trophies from the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont on display; and photographs of famed trainers Ben and Jimmy Jones, legendary jockey Eddie Arcaro and all of Calumet's Derby winners are back in Kentucky. The only hint of the residents' identity and interests comes from the Daily Racing Form on the coffee table.
"The first thing I do in the morning is read it, even though I need a big magnifying glass," says Lucille Markey, who is 81 and doubts that she will get to Churchill Downs next month to see the race her stable dominated for years and has an excellent chance to win again with a powerful colt named Alydar.
When the weather turns a bit warmer, Mrs. Markey and her husband, Admiral Gene Markey, 82, will leave LaGorce Island off Miami Beach for the rolling green hills of Fayette County, Ky. and the 846 acres of Calumet Farm, which for many years was to racing what the New York Yankees were to baseball, the Boston Celtics to basketball and the Montreal Canadiens to hockey. It was one of the greatest of sports dynasties, and like the Canadiens and the Yankees, it could well become pre-potent again.
When Calumet was at the top of its game between 1941 and '61, it had a better bench than the Supreme Court and the Yankees combined. But just two years ago, Calumet's purse earnings had sunk to a 41-year low of $87,725. Then along came Alydar and an excellent filly named Our Mims, and in 1977 its earnings rose to $673,000; this year's take could exceed $1 million, which is more like what Calumet raked in in its heyday. "Just wait a little bit," says John Veitch, the 32-year-old trainer who has helped restore Calumet's illustrious name. "We have some other good horses. They will be out before long, and I think they will win some very important races."
For Mrs. Markey, Calumet's decline and resurgence awaken memories of the late 1930s and early '40s, when her first husband, Warren Wright Sr., whose family owned the Calumet Baking Powder Co., was thinking of selling his racing interests. At that time, it was Whirlaway that came galloping to the rescue. "Warren was very discouraged," Mrs. Markey says. "But you always seem to be at the lowest before you start up again. We have been through some lean years recently, but you don't give up in the bad times. Calumet has won eight Kentucky Derbies, and if Alydar is good enough and lucky enough to win this year, I'd like to see it, but I can't go because I'm in a wheelchair [she suffers from arthritis], and if we win, I'd want to go down in the winner's circle and hug Alydar.
"Admiral Markey and I go out to the track to see the horses in the morning whenever we can; the car is driven up to the rail and we sit and look out. I always loved horses. When I was a girl growing up in Kentucky my father had horses and I'd stand on a tree stump and coax them over to me and ride them, but I never let him see me do it. He was afraid I'd get thrown off, and one day I did and was hurt but I never let on.
"We go from LaGorce to Lexington to Saratoga, but of all the tracks, I love Churchill Downs the best. The Derby is the race you always want to win."
On Derby Day (May 6) Alydar will be a sentimental—as well as a betting—favorite of racing fans, some of whom have been sending letters to the farm wishing Calumet well. "We have fans all over. They're coming out of the woodwork," says Margaret Glass, Calumet's secretary, who has worked at the farm for 38 years. Last week she oozed pride and hope. She was wearing a homemade outfit of Calumet's famed devil's red and blue colors, consisting of a red dress with double bars of blue on the sleeves, blue buttons and a blue collar.
There are 37 buildings on the grounds, each white with red trim. Running between rows of oaks and sycamores are six miles of roads connecting the buildings and pastures. The Markeys' three-storied house has a trophy room containing 495 awards—120 gold trophies, 283 silver trophies, 90 silver cups, one gold cup and a Steuben Glass trophy from the 1959 Widener. The collection is kept in a vault when the Markeys are away—about seven months of the year. Much of their time is spent in Florida because Admiral Markey, who served as an assistant to Navy Secretary James Forrestal during World War II, also is affected by arthritis.
Before Calumet closed its gates to visitors in the late 1960s, the top tourist attraction was its cemetery, honoring its best runners and dominated by a bronze statue of the great sire Bull Lea. Bull Lea's sons lie to his right, and his daughters to his left. Other Calumet mares occupy the graves in another tier. Directly in front of the Bull Lea monument are the Derby winners—Whirlaway (1941), Pensive (1944), Citation (1948), Ponder (1949), Hill Gail (1952) and Iron Liege (1957). Tim Tam, the 1958 winner, is 23 and still stabled at Calumet. Forward Pass, declared the winner of the 1968 Derby when Dancer's Image was disqualified, stands at stud in Japan.
"I always had a big part in naming the Calumet horses, and now the Admiral and I do it together," Mrs. Markey says. "Look, I've put some terrible names on horses, but some of my best turned out to be on good horses. I've read often this year that we named Alydar because I used to write or dictate letters to Aly Khan, that began, 'Aly Darling.' That isn't so. We were great friends of Aly Khan and used to visit him, and he would stay with us when he came over to this country.
"But I never wrote him any letters. We had just come back from visiting him when he was killed in an auto crash near Paris, and we returned for the funeral. We always wanted to name a horse for Aly Khan, but Admiral Markey put the name Alydar on this horse because it sounded good."
No stable has ever dominated racing as Calumet did from 1941 to 1961, and it is doubtful that one will again attain such prominence. Calumet did rare things that transcend statistics, no matter how inflated purses have become in recent years. Pimlico, for example, ran an important race each fall in those days, The Special; it was special because it was winner-take-all. From 1942 to 1948 Calumet entered five horses in the race and they all won, with two of them, Whirl-away and Citation, "walking over" when no opposition showed up. One year, 1947, Calumet sent 40 horses out and 36 earned purse money.
Arcaro, who rode so many of Calumet's stars, reflected recently on the impact the stable had in its most successful years. "It was awesome," Arcaro said, "just plain awesome. People would say, 'Break up Calumet,' meaning they didn't want one of the stable's two- or three-horse entries running in stakes races and taking down most of the purse money. Well, every once in a while the stable would be broken up, with Citation running at one track and Coaltown at another, and when both would win, the people who had been screaming would scream again. But they would have changed their tune. 'Keep Calumet together,' they'd say. 'Don't break them up. When you break them up, they win in so many different places that nobody gets a real shot at the winner's share.' "
The main reason Calumet has had a fallow period the last 16 years is that some of its best horses, notably Citation and Coaltown, rarely sired good horses and some of the stable's best bloodlines ran out. So in recent seasons the Markeys have bought some yearlings, spending $460,000 in 1977 alone. But Alydar and Our Mims are homebreds. Their dam is Sweet Tooth.
Of all the Calumet horses, Citation was the greatest. In 1973, when Secretariat won the Triple Crown, he became the first horse in a quarter of a century to do so, the first since Citation in 1948. As grand a horse as Secretariat was, and as great an impact as he had on the general public, he was no Citation.
Citation's Triple Crown season came not long after the death of Man o'War. Experts were certain—as experts always are—that "the likes of Man o'War will not be seen again." Enter Citation. He had speed, class, durability and a heart the size of a watermelon. After winning eight of nine as a 2-year-old, Citation began his 3-year-old season early in February 1948, running at Hialeah, and he kept going right through the middle of December. During those 11 months he started 20 times and lost just once.
There are many, however, who hold that the best thing ever to walk out of a Calumet barn was a man named Benjamin Allyn Jones. Mrs. Markey remembers Jones fondly. "Calumet wasn't doing too well," she says, "and I had heard about this man named Ben Jones—plain Ben. He was out in Missouri, training for the Woolford Farms of Herbert M. Woolf. I got on the phone and said, 'Mr. Jones, we have never met. Would you consider training for Calumet Farm? Things look sad right now, but we are serious about racing. Please come to Churchill Downs and talk to me.'
"B.A. said to me, 'When do you want me there?' I said, 'Yesterday.'
"A few days later Mr. Jones showed up at Churchill Downs. I remember our first words. Mr. Jones wore a big hat, and when I introduced myself to him and shook his hand, the big hat came off in an instant and he put it under his arm. 'I know all about you,' I said, 'and the one thing I want more than anything else is to win the Kentucky Derby.' He leaned down and kissed me and said, 'That's what I want and we will get it.' "
Jones had already won a Derby by the time he joined Calumet in August 1939. He had taken a sore-footed Woolford colt named Lawrin, put an unknown youngster named Arcaro up and picked up a winner's prize of $47,050. Included in the field that Lawrin beat was a Calumet horse named Bull Lea.
Warren Wright Sr. had purchased Bull Lea at the 1936 Saratoga Yearling Sales for $14,000, despite the fact that the foal had been dropped by a 19-year-old mare of no proven running ability and had been sired by Bull Dog, a moderately successful stakes runner. Also, Bull Lea had four white feet. There is an adage that covers such horses: One white foot, try him; two white feet, buy him; three white feet, look well around him; four white feet, go without him. If Calumet had gone without Bull Lea, it might never have made an illustrious name for itself, because he sired Armed, Faultless, Citation, Coaltown and Bewitch, among others.
When Jones took over, Calumet had a yearling, soon to be named Whirl-away, that was to bring the stable its first Derby winner—and the Triple Crown to boot.
Whirlaway's Derby was the first officially to draw more than 100,000 people, and they saw him set a track record of 2:01⅖ a mark that stood for 21 years. Whirlaway was named Horse of the Year in 1941 and 1942 and was the first horse ever to earn more than $500,000. Jones had delivered on his promise to win a Derby for Calumet, and he also had put the stable in the first rank. In two years, Jones raised Calumet to a third-place ranking in purses (1940), and then to first with earnings of $475,091, a record at the time. Today the figure $1 million means very little in sports, but in 1947, when Calumet became the first stable to attain it, people were amazed that a bunch of horses could make that much.
Only four years later, one horse, Citation, did it on his own. By winning the Hollywood Gold Cup, he increased his bankroll to $1,085,760. There are now 20 horses that have earned $1 million or more, but Citation's feat is still unsurpassed, because he finished in the money in 44 of 45 starts; among million-dollar winners, only Secretariat (20-21), Dr. Fager (21-22) and Buckpasser (30-31) approach his level of excellence.
Now it's Alydar's turn to uphold the Calumet tradition, and in three weeks he will go onto the track at Churchill Downs to meet Affirmed and several other premier 3-year-olds. Affirmed will be carrying an 18-year-old Kentucky-born jockey named Steve Cauthen, riding in his first Derby and trying to fulfill a remarkable dream. Just some 80 miles away Lucille Markey will be watching the race on television in Lexington. She, too, has a remarkable dream.
After years of domination, Calumet went downhill. Now the Kentucky farm is heading back up again.
The breeding shed at Calumet stirs memories of the famous old sire Bull Lea, whose offspring included Triple Crown winner Citation and other greats.
The Markeys enjoyed the Eclipse Awards because Our Mims was voted 1977's best 3-year-old filly.