11/14/2014 3:07PM

Hovdey: Memories of Hunt's greatest horses


Memories of Hunt’s greatest horses

Even before his death on Oct. 21 at age 88, Nelson Bunker Hunt would have been described correctly as long gone from the Thoroughbred racing scene.

Hunt’s legacy ended up reading like a “Giant” meets “Wall Street” movie mash-up, better titled “There Will Be Blood, Silver, Oil, and Horses.” He was a devout, proselytizing Christian, a high muckety-muck in the arch-conservative John Birch Society, and an eclectic collector of paintings, sculpture, and coins.

Marlon Brando studied Hunt to create his oil baron character in the 1980 conspiracy thriller “The Formula,” and the actor got the hair right, the folksy straight talk, and probably a few other things that were close to the bone. But from what most people knew of Hunt in whatever setting he flourished, or failed, he came off about as complicated as a sundial.

Hunt went to his grave as the guy who tried to buy all the silver in the world, which is probably giving him more demonic credit than he deserved. He declared for bankruptcy protection in 1988, which required a dispersal of his Thoroughbreds and put an end to his reign as a major player in the game. At that point, however, nothing could top what he had already achieved.

Hunt was smart enough to know he couldn’t corner the racing game. Like wildcatting for oil, there was too much luck involved. Hunt also knew he at least could set the stage to take advantage of whatever luck might wander along. Owning more than 1,000 horses helped.

A mild flurry of ownership activity late in Hunt’s racing life did nothing to either enhance or erase his achievements in the 1970s and ‘80s, when his two-toned green block silks were represented by some of the game’s best runners on both sides of the pond. They were more than memorable stakes horses. They were key players in many of the most memorable races of the era. Here are a few who stick out:

Hunt’s first horse of international note actually came in 1968, when Vaguely Noble emerged as one of Europe’s finest 3-year-olds. Hunt bought him the year before in a partnership through California-based agent Albert Yank. The colt spent most of the season in the shadow of Sir Ivor, the winner of the Epsom Derby and 2000 Guineas. But then came the Arc de Triomphe, in which Vaguely Noble towered over a field that included the winners of 11 European classics. Sir Ivor finished second.

Hunt sent Vaguely Noble to stud in 1969, and in 1970, he was rewarded with a chestnut filly he named Dahlia, after the flower. Dahlia did so much that it is hard to single out a signature race – she won major stakes in England, France, Ireland, Canada, and the United States – but it was the 1973 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes that put her in the spotlight for keeps when she defeated the marquee colts Rheingold, Roberto, and Hard to Beat.

Hunt’s foal crop of 1973 was impossible, but it happened. For starters, there was Empery, a son of Vaguely Noble who gave Lester Piggott his record seventh victory in the Epsom Derby. Five days later, in the Prix du Jockey Club that everyone else calls the French Derby, Hunt scored the giddy double with Youth, a son of Ack Ack.

Youth headed for North America later in the year to win both the Canadian International at Woodbine and the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel. That was good enough for an Eclipse Award as champion turf horse, for which Hunt and trainer Maurice Zilber were grateful. They knew, though, that there was a better one than either Youth or Empery back home at Chantilly.

Exceller, another son of Vaguely Noble, was actually purchased by Hunt for $25,000 as a yearling. Compared with Youth and Empery, he was a late bloomer, but he managed to win top stakes races in France and England before Hunt decided that Charlie Whittingham should take over. Good move.

Exceller’s 1978 season remains the best that has ever been recorded without the recognition of a championship. For Whittingham that year, he won four Grade 1 stakes on grass and two on dirt. His hallmark performance came in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, in which he defeated Seattle Slew by a nose in a race that still brings either tears or goose bumps. Usually both.

Hunt also gets credit as the breeder and owner, either for a while or in partnership, of the champion mares Trillion, Glorious Song, and Estrapade, as well as Dahlia’s baby boys Dahar and Rivlia, both major stakes winners on grass.

The impression left by my handful of encounters with Hunt lines up with what has been reported by those who followed his life more closely, as an unassuming man of simple tastes who also happened to be a billionaire who could move and shake some of the world’s most vital markets.

You would see him sometimes at Whittingham’s barn out West, unobtrusively perched on a tack trunk in a plain suit and no tie, waiting for his trainer to finish before daring to take up his time. At the races, Hunt would talk racing with anyone who cared to approach, net worth notwithstanding. The man loved the game, generated a lot of commerce, and left plenty of history for the rest of us to enjoy.