Once upon a time, not all that many decades ago, Calumet Farm represented the very pinnacle of Thoroughbred horse racing. From the late 1930s until the early 1990s, Calumet bred and raced a staggering collection of champions that included Triple Crown winners Citation and Whirlaway.
At the peak of Calumet’s dominance, the farm won a record eight Kentucky Derbys, all with with homebreds, from 1941 through 1968 (no other owner has won more than four). Calumet also bred 1991 Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold.
A bankruptcy in 1991 caused Calumet Farm to fall from prominence, but in 2012 the farm was purchased for $35.9 million by the Calumet Investment Group and then leased to Brad Kelley, a billionaire who had made a fortune through a tobacco and cigarette company, Commonwealth Brands, that he sold in 2001.
Embarking on an ambitious plan to restore Calumet to glory, and possessing the funds to make it happen, Kelley has invested heavily in the farm and has been rewarded with success that few could have imagined just five years ago.
The results can be seen by a mere glance through the list of contenders for the 2017 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. Calumet Farm’s homebred 3-year-olds — conceived in 2013 and born the following year — comprise a group of Derby contenders with amazing depth and strength in numbers. No fewer than four Calumet homebreds earned Kentucky Derby qualification points this year, and three of them — Hence, Patch, and Sonneteer — are expected to be entered in the race. If all three enter the starting gate on May 6, it would mark only the second time since 1946 that a single owner has started three horses in the Derby.
The beginning of Calumet’s resurgence can be traced to 2013, when Kelley received permission to race under the Calumet name. Forging a partnership with Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, Calumet surged into the headlines with a trio of colts named Oxbow, Skyring, and Optimizer. All three would win graded stakes races that year, and Oxbow would bring Triple Crown race glory to Calumet by winning the Preakness Stakes, the first time Calumet as an owner had won or placed in a classic race since 1978.
In the years since 2013, Calumet has been very active at auction. Starting in 2013, the farm has purchased 382 horses (many of them broodmares) for a total of more than $37.2 million; more than $14 million alone was spent on 126 horses in 2015.
But success in racing is only part of the equation. Focusing on the goal of breeding classic winners and sound horses with the ability to thrive in route races, Calumet Farm has rebuilt its Kentucky stallion roster to include 19 stallions as of 2017, placing a strong emphasis on stamina and durability over speed.
Six of the Calumet stallions were bred outside the United States, bringing fresh bloodlines from Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Great Britain, and Ireland. Furthermore, the U.S.-bred stallions include such proven route runners and champions as Big Blue Kitten, English Channel, Oxbow, Point Given, and Smarty Jones, plus the former Australian runner Americain, winner of the historic two-mile Melbourne Cup.
Needless to say, the future looks bright for the new Calumet Farm, and the best may still be to come. With a racing stable that spans the country and an exciting crop of 2-year-olds waiting in the wings (Oxbow’s first foals will hit the races this year), having three horses in the 2017 Kentucky Derby might prove to be just a small part of a much larger renaissance.
Will Calumet Farm secure its ninth Derby win as an owner and 10th as a breeder? We’ll find out on the first Saturday in May!