02/02/2007 12:00AM

A day spent with two legends

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - Anytime is a good time to write about Affirmed, except this time. This time his name must be entwined with the loss of the man who shepherded Affirmed through the final decade of his life, John A. Bell III, who died on Wednesday in a Lexington hospice. He was 88.

And what an 88 it was. The more formal obituaries will be filled with the John Bell legacy that includes his tireless work on such racing industry issues as interstate simulcasting, veterinary research, bloodstock marketing, and the Breeders' Cup. They will extol the virtues of his pride and joy, Jonabell Farm, where such champions as Epitome, Battlefield, Ahoy, Green Forest, Housebuster, Holy Bull, and Cherokee Run were either bred, raised, or stood at stud, all to the improvement of the breed. And they will also mention the fact that Bell bought his first horse with a litter of pigs, which is true, but it could just as easily have been puppies or parakeets. It was the horse that counted.

Any moment in the presence of John Bell was time well spent. He was a gentleman and a gentle soul, with a sense of humor that held up well through the roller-coaster business of raising and selling Thoroughbreds. For this California correspondent, there were those happy encounters at Del Mar, to which Bell and his wife, Jessica, wisely migrated for occasional summer racing and fresh sea air. Still, there was never a better day with John than that first visit to the farm, after a winding search for the modest Jonabell nameplate along Bowman Mill Road.

Bell and his family already were eternally connected to two of my all-time most cherished treasures. Damascus was raised at Jonabell before going into the world to perform miracles, and Vigors was buried there, after a stallion career at Jonabell that added weight to his reputation as a thrilling racehorse.

Their presence was felt, sitting briefly in Bell's office, before he slapped a hand on his desk and announced, "Let's go see the big horse."

And so we did.

Of all the semi-focused snapshots taken by these shaky hands at farms, racetracks, backsides, and bullrings, a handful have attached themselves to everlasting memory as well. There's one of Charlie Whittingham, striding through the crowd at Del Mar, circa 1965. There's the one of old Round Table at Claiborne, at the age of 21. And then there is John Henry after a bath and assistant trainer Eduardo Inda, at Arlington Park in the summer of '81, preparing for the first Arlington Million.

So the groom brought out the big red stallion and handed him over to Bell, and for a moment, John Bell and Affirmed matched profiles, looking off into the distance, perhaps clocking the progress of a plane taking off from Bluegrass Field. Bell and the Jonabell crew got a great kick out of Affirmed, a horse who never flaunted the fact that he was one of the greatest who ever lived.

After being moved from the wreckage of the Calumet bankruptcy at the end of 1991, Affirmed spent the last 10 years of his life at Jonabell. They may have been the 10 best.

"They gave him great care, and a great life," said Patrice Wolfson, who bred, raced, and stood Affirmed with her husband, Lou. "They did the little things that made things better for him, simple things like air conditioning in his stall."

Patricians both, they made a handsome pair, John Bell and Affirmed, and their offspring made them proud. In the case of Affirmed it was more than 80 stakes-winning sons and daughters, with names like Flawlessly, The Tin Man, Bint Pasha, and Affirmed Success. In Bell's case, it was Jimmy, Jessica, Bennett, and John Bell IV, each one carrying on an important part of the family imprint.

Not long after Affirmed died, in January of 2001, John Bell sold Jonabell to Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum. The name was changed to Darley, as was only apropos, and expanded stallion facilities have been built, now housing champion Bernardini, among others.

There is continuity, however, with the 55 years John Bell maintained Jonabell as one of the most respected farms in the land. Son Jimmy Bell, who had already taken the daily management reins of Jonabell, assumed a similar role for Darley. And it was Jimmy Bell who made sure that there was a special plot of ground set aside for those who wish to visit Affirmed's grave.

Too many losses

The news of John Bell's death was sad, but not shocking. His health had been on the decline. Neither was it a surprise to hear of the passing on Feb. 1 of former jockey Henry Moreno, winner of the 1953 Kentucky Derby aboard Dark Star in that historic upset of Native Dancer. Moreno, 77, had been battling pancreatic cancer.

Now comes word of another death in the racing family. Kellie Cerin, an accomplished horsewoman and wife of Southern California-based trainer Vladimir Cerin - winner of races like the Hollywood Gold Cup, Del Mar Derby, and Shoemaker Mile - was killed in a fall on Feb. 1 while on holiday in Mexico. Go ahead. Make sense of that.ARCADIA, Calif. - Anytime is a good time to write about Affirmed, except this time. This time his name must be entwined with the loss of the man who shepherded Affirmed through the final decade of his life, John A. Bell III, who died on Wednesday in a Lexington hospice. He was 88.

And what an 88 it was. The more formal obituaries will be filled with the John Bell legacy that includes his tireless work on such racing industry issues as interstate simulcasting, veterinary research, bloodstock marketing, and the Breeders' Cup. They will extol the virtues of his pride and joy, Jonabell Farm, where such champions as Epitome, Battlefield, Ahoy, Green Forest, Housebuster, Holy Bull, and Cherokee Run were either bred, raised, or stood at stud, all to the improvement of the breed. And they will also mention the fact that Bell bought his first horse with a litter of pigs, which is true, but it could just as easily have been puppies or parakeets. It was the horse that counted.

Any moment in the presence of John Bell was time well spent. He was a gentleman and a gentle soul, with a sense of humor that held up well through the roller-coaster business of raising and selling Thoroughbreds. For this California correspondent, there were those happy encounters at Del Mar, to which Bell and his wife, Jessica, wisely migrated for occasional summer racing and fresh sea air. Still, there was never a better day with John than that first visit to the farm, after a winding search for the modest Jonabell nameplate along Bowman Mill Road.

Bell and his family already were eternally connected to two of my all-time most cherished treasures. Damascus was raised at Jonabell before going into the world to perform miracles, and Vigors was buried there, after a stallion career at Jonabell that added weight to his reputation as a thrilling racehorse.

Their presence was felt, sitting briefly in Bell's office, before he slapped a hand on his desk and announced, "Let's go see the big horse."

And so we did.

Of all the semi-focused snapshots taken by these shaky hands at farms, racetracks, backsides, and bullrings, a handful have attached themselves to everlasting memory as well. There's one of Charlie Whittingham, striding through the crowd at Del Mar, circa 1965. There's the one of old Round Table at Claiborne, at the age of 21. And then there is John Henry after a bath and assistant trainer Eduardo Inda, at Arlington Park in the summer of '81, preparing for the first Arlington Million.

So the groom brought out the big red stallion and handed him over to Bell, and for a moment, John Bell and Affirmed matched profiles, looking off into the distance, perhaps clocking the progress of a plane taking off from Bluegrass Field. Bell and the Jonabell crew got a great kick out of Affirmed, a horse who never flaunted the fact that he was one of the greatest who ever lived.

After being moved from the wreckage of the Calumet bankruptcy at the end of 1991, Affirmed spent the last 10 years of his life at Jonabell. They may have been the 10 best.

"They gave him great care, and a great life," said Patrice Wolfson, who bred, raced, and stood Affirmed with her husband, Lou. "They did the little things that made things better for him, simple things like air conditioning in his stall."

Patricians both, they made a handsome pair, John Bell and Affirmed, and their offspring made them proud. In the case of Affirmed it was more than 80 stakes-winning sons and daughters, with names like Flawlessly, The Tin Man, Bint Pasha, and Affirmed Success. In Bell's case, it was Jimmy, Jessica, Bennett, and John Bell IV, each one carrying on an important part of the family imprint.

Not long after Affirmed died, in January of 2001, John Bell sold Jonabell to Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum. The name was changed to Darley, as was only apropos, and expanded stallion facilities have been built, now housing champion Bernardini, among others.

There is continuity, however, with the 55 years John Bell maintained Jonabell as one of the most respected farms in the land. Son Jimmy Bell, who had already taken the daily management reins of Jonabell, assumed a similar role for Darley. And it was Jimmy Bell who made sure that there was a special plot of ground set aside for those who wish to visit Affirmed's grave.

Too many losses

The news of John Bell's death was sad, but not shocking. His health had been on the decline. Neither was it a surprise to hear of the passing on Feb. 1 of former jockey Henry Moreno, winner of the 1953 Kentucky Derby aboard Dark Star in that historic upset of Native Dancer. Moreno, 77, had been battling pancreatic cancer.

Now comes word of another death in the racing family. Kellie Cerin, an accomplished horsewoman and wife of Southern California-based trainer Vladimir Cerin - winner of races like the Hollywood Gold Cup, Del Mar Derby, and Shoemaker Mile - was killed in a fall on Feb. 1 while on holiday in Mexico. Go ahead. Make sense of that.