Updated on 09/17/2011 10:06AM

Calumet's de Kwiatowski is dead


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Calumet Farm owner Henryk de Kwiatkowski, whose best horses included Conquistador Cielo, De La Rose, and the sire Danzig, died Monday morning at a hospital in the Bahamas. He was 79.

The cause of death was pneumonia, according to a family friend in New York who asked not to be identified.

Only the night before his death, de Kwiatkowski and his family celebrated Region of Merit's three-quarter-length victory in Sunday's Tampa Bay Derby, a prep race for the Kentucky Derby.

"He was absolutely thrilled, because it had been the dream of his life to have a horse in the Derby and to restore Calumet to the point where it could have another homebred in the Derby," the friend said. "This horse is a homebred Calumet baby, and it was a dream of his to have Calumet back in the Derby again."

After the race, Tony Cissell, manager of Calumet Farm, traveled to the Bahamas and brought the Tampa Bay Derby trophy to the family.

A Polish aviation mogul, de Kwiatkowski raced under the nom de course Kennelot Stables and achieved most of his success with Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens. His best runner was Conquistador Cielo, who was voted Horse of the Year in 1982, when he won the Metropolitan Handicap and then five days later captured the Belmont Stakes. De La Rose was champion turf female in 1981. His other top runners included 1986 Belmont winner Danzig Connection; Kennelot, for whom the stable was named; multiple graded stakes-winner Sabin; and Stephan's Odyssey, runner-up in the 1985 Belmont Stakes.

But De Kwiatkowski was perhaps best known as the savior of Calumet Farm, thanks to his 1992 purchase of the legendary nursery at auction for $17 million.

Calumet was long considered the crown jewel among Bluegrass horse farms, and its Kentucky Derby record is unparalleled. Since 1935, when founder Warren Wright was at the helm, the farm has bred nine winners, eight of whom it also owned. Two of those winners, Whirlaway in 1941 and Citation in 1948, went on to win the Triple Crown. The farm's last Derby success came with Calumet-bred Strike the Gold, who won the race in 1991, just months before Calumet collapsed into bankruptcy and a web of lawsuits after the resignation of its chief at the time, J. T. Lundy. A sordid series of accusations followed, including one alleging that Lundy had ordered the farm's star-crossed stallion, Alydar, killed for insurance money.

Lundy is serving four and a half years in federal prison for his role in the Calumet bankruptcy on counts of fraud, conspiracy, and bribery. Alydar was found in his stall at Calumet Farm with a broken leg in November 1990 and was euthanized on Nov. 15, with Calumet collecting on a $35 million insurance policy. Prosecutors have failed to connect the stallion's death with Lundy, who has denied any wrongdoing.

The farm landed on the auction block on March 26, 1992, to satisfy creditors who were owed almost $100 million. Sitting under the red-and-white striped auction tent, his body erect and his hands folded elegantly on the top of a polished wooden cane he carried after a polo injury, de Kwiatkowski watched the bidding open at $10 million and jumped in at $11 million. When the hammer dropped on his final bid, a crowd of several thousand people gave de Kwiatkowski an ovation, relieved that the farm had come into the hands of a sportsman, and not a developer.

Calumet could hardly have found a more devoted benefactor. Almost as soon as the hammer fell, de Kwiatkowski promised that not "a speck of grass" at Calumet would ever give way to bulldozers.

De Kwiatkowski, always a popular guest at dinner parties and high-stakes poker games around the Bluegrass, was instantly lauded as the great farm's savior. A decade after the purchase, people would still stop him in public to thank him for keeping the landmark intact.

Even before he bought Calumet, de Kwiatkowski was regarded as one of Thoroughbred racing's enduring and most charming characters. The details he provided of his personal history, while never completely documented, were entirely fascinating.

His official biography, posted on the Calumet Farm website, says that he was born in Warsaw in 1924, the son of Austrian and Polish parents. Transported to a Siberian work camp in 1939 after the Nazi invasion of Poland, he said he escaped two years later via Iran and headed to England on the Empress of Canada - which was torpedoed, leaving him as one of about 400 survivors. De Kwiatkowski eventually made it to Britain, where he joined the Royal Air Force and carried out missions including parachuting into Warsaw with messages for the Underground.

His wartime service marked the beginning of a lifelong relationship with aviation, and he made his fortune as an aircraft broker for heads of state, including the Shah of Iran. In fact, Kwiatkowski claimed to have evacuated the Shah for a brief exile in Rome in 1953 during a short-lived Iranian coup. Although the tale had its doubters, one reporter, Vanity Fair's Bob Colacello, found an eyewitness in a Newsweek reporter, Arnaud de Borchgrave, who said he'd been on the plane when it returned to Teheran, and de Kwiatkowski was at the controls.

De Kwiatkowski maintained that this personal relationship and loyalty to the Shah smoothed the way for a $183 million aircraft deal that he said was concluded over table games at the Shah's palace. The deal certainly occurred, but some highly placed Iranian exiles have denied that de Kwiatkowski ever played table games at the palace. There have been other questions about de Kwiatkowski's stories and details, including the "de" in his name that some people say he added for aristocratic flair. But the mystery surrounding some of his claims only added to his charm as a storyteller.

If the truth of his past is hard to untangle, de Kwiatkowski's love of horses and sport is not. In addition to his racing interests, de Kwiatkowski was an avid two-goal polo player, whose victories included the golden Deauville Cup. He put a polo field on the infield of Calumet's training track, painting a goal post orange, he told his close friend Preston Madden, so that passengers on incoming flights to nearby Lexington airport could see him score.

De Kwiatkowski was famed for his good luck and astute business sense. He bought Conquistador Cielo as a yearling for $150,000, named him after an aviation club, and then syndicated him after the Horse of the Year title for a then-record $36.4 million. He syndicated Danzig, who was not a stakes winner, for $60,000, then saw his value soar to $100 million at the peak of the 1980's bloodstock boom.

A popular Lexington story about Danzig involves two horsemen who had bought into the stallion at syndication backed out of their $60,000 shares when they decided the horse was overpriced. De Kwiatkowski graciously let them out of the obligation and kept the shares, which then improved in value dramatically when Danzig proved to be one of the breed's better modern sires. The pair called back then and wanted back into the syndicate, but de Kwiatkowski, who had found fault with their sporting courage, turned them down.

De Kwiatkowski himself referred to his purchase of Calumet as "my crowning achievement." His red and white racing colors had been less evident on the racetrack in recent years, and the last big story attached to his name had had to do with his winning a $164 million case against Bear Stearns for failing to exercise enough care in dealing with its high-rolling client. His friends find it fitting that this year the farm has produced its first Derby hopeful since Strike the Gold in 1991, bringing attention back to Calumet. Plans for the farm were not immediately clear on Monday.

"I think Henryk was unquestionably one of best things that happened to the Bluegrass and to Kentucky in as long as I can remember," said Madden. "It's a great loss. You never had to worry about doing any entertaining when Henryk was around, because he entertained everyone. He was the show."

De Kwiatkowski died with his family around him, according to the family friend. He is survived by his wife, Barbara. His children include Michelle, Arianne, Conrad, Stefan, Nicole, and Lulu from a previous marriage and his youngest son, Nicholas, from his marriage to Barbara. Memorial service plans were pending on Monday.