02/02/2007 12:00AM

Bell indirectly aided Piggott and the Beatles


LEXINGTON, Ky. - John A. Bell III, who died on Wednesday at age 88, is probably best known as the owner of 1987 juvenile filly champion Epitome and Jonabell Farm, which has stood such champions as Housebuster, Holy Bull, and Affirmed.

But his connections to champion racehorses and classic winners started many years before that, dating back to 1948 when he first hung out his shingle on a leased portion of the Madden family's Hamburg Place. In fact, the first crop of foals born there under Bell's care turned out a champion, 1950's top juvenile Battlefield. Bell bred the War Relic colt in his father's name, then sold him as a yearling for $4,500 to George Widener.

"Sometimes they bring more than they're worth, and sometimes you sell a real bargain," Bell later observed of that transaction.

Three years after Battlefield's foaling, Robert Sterling Clark sent Bell five broodmares. One was Singing Grass, in foal to Nasrullah. On March 26, 1951, she produced a large colt after a difficult foaling. The colt didn't breathe at first.

"I happened to have a little bourbon handy," Bell told Red Smith some years later. "I rubbed him, giving him artificial respiration, and then I gave him a nip of whiskey."

The foal survived, and a grateful Clark named him Never Say Die. In 1954, he became the second American-bred runner (and the first since Iroquois in 1881) to win the Epsom Derby, at 33-1.

Aficionados of the whimsical will appreciate that when Bell saved Never Say Die at his birth, he indirectly helped launch two other notable careers. Never Say Die has gone down in history as the first Epsom Derby winner ridden by Lester Piggott, who at 18 was the race's youngest winning rider; he went on to win the race nine times. Less well known was Never Say Die's connection to the Beatles. One bettor who cashed a ticket on the horse's Derby win was Mona Best, whose son, Pete, had just joined a band. Mona bought a house with her winnings and offered the band a place to practice there. They were called the Quarrymen then, but within a decade they were world famous as the Beatles (but without Pete, who was replaced by Ringo Starr). Pete Best visited Lexington in 2005 at the invitation of Bell's son-in-law, Joe Brown Nicholson, and paid homage to Never Say Die on a stop in the Hamburg barn where Bell had coaxed the colt into life.

Bell sent a runner overseas himself in 1971 in a sporting gesture that Lexingtonians still remember with admiration. Jonabell Farm bred the Northern Dancer colt in partnership with E.V. Benjamin III. The pair syndicated the colt, named One for All, putting together a group that

included Jacques D. Wimpfheimer, Alfred Vanderbilt, Northern Dancer's breeder and owner E.P. Taylor, and breeder Reginald Webster, who had bred and raced One for All's dam, Quill. They sent One for All to France for the 1971 Arc de Triomphe, attempting something only four American runners had ever tried; none had won.

One for All looked a reasonable contender. He was a turf specialist who won four stakes races on grass at distances between 1 3/8 miles and two miles. In the Arc, he took the lead early but ended up ninth behind Mill Reef at the finish line.

Three weeks later, on Oct. 24, 1971, Bell and partners took comfort when One for All captured the Canadian International Championship Stakes at Woodbine.

"Maybe now we don't look quite such a jackass in sending him over for the Arc de Triomphe," Bell told the Lexington Herald at the time.

Far from it. One for All's international travels inspired owners and racing fans on both sides of the Atlantic and helped cement Bell's reputation as a sportsman. And, incidentally, One for All's daughter All Things New later produced a Gradeo1 winner for Bell, Try Something New.

Graveside services for Bell were scheduled for Saturday morning at Lexington Cemetery. The family suggests contributions to the Bell Endowed Chair at the University of Kentucky, c/o H.I. Stroth, UK Office of Development, Sturgill Building, 120 Rose St., Lexington, KY 40506; to Hospice of the Bluegrass, 2312 Alexandria Drive, Lexington, KY 40504; or to a charity of one's choice.

Irish tax exemption set to expire

The tax exemption for stallion earnings that helped Ireland's bloodstock industry boom will end in August 2008, the Racing Post reports. From that date, Irish stud owners will have to pay tax on their stallion income at the corporate rate of 12.5opercent. Stallion owners will be able to write off the cost of stallions' purchase prices over four years under a new provision.