Nelson Bunker Hunt: An Oilman with an Eye for Racehorses

Nelson Bunker Hunt (right) looks at horses at a Keeneland sale in 1974. (BloodHorse photo)

The silver market may have cost him an immense fortune, yet for about two decades Nelson Bunker Hunt struck gold in Thoroughbred racing.

Hunt, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 88, was a son of oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, who became one of the world’s richest men through ownership of vast portions of the East Texas Oil Field.

To some, Hunt is an oilman best known for an ill-fated attempt to corner the silver market in the late 1970s and early 1980s with his brothers, William Herbert Hunt and Lamar Hunt. At one point, they drove the price of silver from $11 an ounce to $50 an ounce in January of 1980 and turned an estimated profit of between $2-4 billion. Yet two months later, the market collapsed and the price of silver dipped below $11 an ounce, costing them billions, and in 1988 the Hunt brothers filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code.

In contrast, Hunt’s run in horse racing was far longer and dramatically more successful.

He bought his first horse in 1955 at the Keeneland sale, but it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that he assembled one of the world’s most formidable stables that numbered as many 1,000 horses and broodmares at its height and centered around his 8,000-acre Bluegrass Farms in Lexington.

Though an American, many of Hunt’s biggest wins came in Europe.

His first big success story came after Hunt was outbid at a sale for Vaguely Noble. He was then offered a half share in the colt after his 2-year-old season and was rewarded in 1968 when Vaguely Noble won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at 3, defeating Sir Ivor.

Vaguely Noble was syndicated for $5 million and became the leading sire in England and Ireland in 1973 and 1974. He produced 70 graded stakes winners and was the broodmare sire of 165 stakes winners. Included in that long list of stakes winners were some of Hunt’s best horses.

The star of Vaguely Noble’s first crop was the filly Dahlia, who retired in 1976 as the all-time leader in earnings among fillies and mares after winning classic races in the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, and France.

Bred and owned by Hunt, Dahlia was a stakes winner in Europe at 2 but blossomed at 3 and won the Prix de la Grotte, Prix Saint-Alary, Irish Oaks, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and Prix Niel before shipping to the United States and winning the prestigious 1973 Washington D.C. International at Laurel for trainer Maurice Zilber.

Named Britain’s Horse of the Year in 1973, Dahlia posted back-to-back wins in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and also triumphed in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup in Europe, as well as the Man o’ War Stakes at Belmont Park and Canadian International at Woodbine.

Hunt with Dahlia in 2001.
Hunt with Dahlia in 2001. (BloodHorse photo)

Aside from being named Britain’s Horse of the Year for a second straight year, Dahlia was also the Eclipse Award winner in the United States as the champion turf horse of 1974.

As a 6-year-old in 1976, she was sent to the United States to race for trainer Charlie Whittingham in California. Among her 13 starts for the Hall of Fame trainer was a win in the Grade 1 Hollywood Invitational.

When she retired, Dahlia was respected as one of the sport’s all-time best distaff runners and had record earnings of $1,489,105. She was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame at Saratoga in 1981.

Also in Vaguely Noble’s first crop was Noble Decree, England’s champion 2-year-old male of 1972 for Hunt and trainer Bernard van Cutsem.

In 1976, Hunt won the Epsom Derby with Empery and the French Derby, Canadian International, and Washington D.C. International with Youth, two horses who were later syndicated for a combined $12 million.

Youth received the Eclipse Award in 1976 as the champion turf horse and Hunt received the Eclipse Award as that year’s champion breeder, an award he also received in 1985 and 1987.

Also in 1976, Hunt bought a son of Vaguely Noble for $25,000 at the Keeneland sale who he named Exceller. Exceller won the 1977 Canadian International at Woodbine, then in 1978 he engaged Seattle Slew in a furious stretch duel in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and defeated the Triple Crown winner by a nose.

Exceller won 15 of 33 starts, including 1978 victories for Whittingham in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Hollywood Invitational Turf Handicap and San Juan Capistrano. He retired with earnings of $1,654,003, placing him sixth on the all-time list at the time, one spot ahead of Dahlia.

In 1979, Hunt raced Trillion, who received the initial Eclipse Award as the champion female turf runner.

Among some of the other top horses he raced or bred were 1980 Santa Margarita winner Glorious Song, 1985 Century Handicap winner Dahar, 1985 Yellow Ribbon and 1986 Arlington Million winner Estrapade and 1975 Washington D.C. International victor Nobiliary.

In 1988, Hunt’s financial woes forced him to sell 580 of his horses for $46.9 million at Keeneland but he re-entered the sport a decade later in 1999, buying approximately 50 horses for $2 million.

According to Equibase statistics, from 2000 to 2011, his horses won 352 races and earned more than $8.8 million. He won the Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap in 2002 with Piensa Sonando, which proved to be his final graded stakes win.

As much as silver will always be associated with gold, in horse racing, it was his light and dark green colors worn by a legion of graded and group stakes winners that produced many a golden year in the sport for Nelson Bunker Hunt.

Fun Facts About Nelson Bunker Hunt

  • Dahlia was the first filly or mare to crack the $1 million mark in earnings.
  • Hunt bred 158 stakes winners and bred or owned 25 champions.
  • When Exceller defeated both Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup, he became the only horse to defeat two Triple Crown winners in the same race.

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