04/28/2017 10:36AM

Calumet Farm horses bask in Kentucky Derby limelight while owner prefers privacy

Barbara D. Livingston
Hence, winner of the Sunland Derby, is one of three potential Kentucky Derby starters for Calumet Farm.

On the first Saturday in May, the marching band will play “My Old Kentucky Home,” and the field will file onto the Churchill Downs main track past the rose-trimmed winner’s circle that is used only one weekend a year. As many as three horses will run in the name of Calumet Farm, which has won a record eight editions of the Kentucky Derby.

But while a winner would add to that history, he would be the first of the group to carry the colors of current Calumet owner Brad Kelley, a deeply private man who assumed control of the historic property five years ago.

The farm, founded by William Monroe Wright in 1924, was officially purchased by the Calumet Investment Trust on May 3, 2012. The price tag for the nearly 800-acre property was $35.9 million, according to records filed with the Fayette County Clerk’s Office.

Kelley has continued to race in his own black and gold colors because the iconic devil’s red and blue silks carried by the likes of Whirlaway and Citation were purchased by a Brazilian businessman at a 1992 bankruptcy auction.

Kelley has already seen his colors painted on the weather vane at Pimlico, where his Oxbow won the 2013 Preakness Stakes. But now, he takes dead aim on the Derby.

“Being in Kentucky, the Derby is the ultimate challenge,” Calumet farm manager Eddie Kane said.

Kelley, a former majority owner of Kentucky Downs and a former stockholder in Churchill Downs Inc., began racing as Bluegrass Hall in 2009 before transitioning to the Calumet name. The owner is a self-made man whose net worth, according to Forbes, is $2.2 billion. A native of Kentucky who now is based in Tennessee, Kelley, who never earned a college degree, founded Commonwealth Brands in 1991. A decade later, he sold the company for $1 billion.

“I like to think [the secret to success] was discipline and patience and avoiding pitfalls and working for the long term,” Kelley told The New York Times in 2005. “I’m sure as heck not Horatio Alger. There are a lot of people out there who are real smart and work real hard, and it doesn’t happen for them. I just happened to be the one that it did. Sometimes you get dealt a good hand.”

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One of the largest private landholders in the United States, Kelley is also an active wildlife conservationist. But it is his exploits with other four-legged creatures on a particular piece of land for which Kelley has drawn the most attention. While Kelley is extremely active at public auction, all three of his current Kentucky Derby hopefuls – Hence, Patch, and Sonneteer – are homebreds out of mares he selected and purchased.

“Internally, it is nice to have some validation of process,” Kane said. “It certainly helps justify the effort.”

Hence won the Sunland Derby by 3 3/4 lengths, and that effort has since been flattered. Runner-up Conquest Mo Money came back to finish second to champion Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby, third-place Hedge Fund was second in the Illinois Derby, and fourth-place Irap won the Blue Grass Stakes.

“The race appears to be key since the running of it,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “I think from our perspective, the horse has always had a lot of talent, and he’s putting things together at the right time.”

Patch, a one-eyed colt from the immediate family of champion Banshee Breeze, finished second in the Louisiana Derby. The maiden Sonneteer, who needs help on the points list to make the Derby field, finished second in the Rebel Stakes and fourth in the Arkansas Derby.

Calumet also has a Kentucky Oaks hopeful in the regally bred purchase Vexatious, a full sister to Grade 1 winner Creative Cause and Grade 2 winner Destin. Vexatious came off a three-month layoff to finish third to Kentucky Derby contender Battle of Midway and Reach the World in an allowance at Santa Anita. Vexatious then finished third in both the Fair Grounds Oaks and Fantasy Stakes.

“She’s an improving filly,” trainer Neil Drysdale said. “I liked her race against the colts a lot. She got into trouble and still was able to come home well down the lane.”

Calumet’s horses are spread among a variety of trainers. Alongside Asmussen and Drysdale, Patch is trained by Todd Pletcher, and Sonneteer by Keith Desormeaux.

D. Wayne Lukas, who trained horses such as 1990 Horse of the Year Criminal Type for Calumet under past regimes, saddled Oxbow for Kelley and has horses with the operation. The team also includes Charlie LoPresti, Dale Romans, Rusty Arnold, and Nick Zito; farm trainer Jose Fernandez also runs horses in his name.

There’s also variety on the Calumet stallion roster, which has been steadily expanding. The farm stood five stallions in 2013, Kelley’s first full year of operations. It now stands 18 in Kentucky alone, plus regional sires.

The roster is anchored by three classic winners – 2001 Horse of the Year Point Given, the winner of the Preakness and Belmont; 2004 Derby and Preakness winner and champion Smarty Jones; and Oxbow, whose first foals run this year. But the farm also stands turf champions Big Blue Kitten and English Channel and graded-stakes-winning dirt sprinters Aikenite and Ready’s Image.

International flair comes from Melbourne Cup winner Americain, globetrotting Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Red Rocks, Irish Derby winner Grey Swallow, German-bred Canadian champion Musketier, and Argentine-bred Snapy Halo.

Much like the people behind Calumet, the diverse group of stallions has found itself in the same place for a common purpose.

“I think for all of us, our journey in the Thoroughbred business started long before we came together at Calumet, but the sense of the history here is so powerful it is inspiring,” Kane said. “Who knows where things will go from here? Our mission is to continue to develop a sustainable, reputable presence in the Thoroughbred industry.”