05/25/2013 7:00AM

Mr. Calumet: Remembering the man who founded racing's greatest classic dynasty

Keeneland Library-Cook
Whirlaway, with Alfred Robertson up, being led into the winner’s circle by Warren Wright, accompanied by trainer Ben Jones, at Belmont Park in 1940, a year before the colt won the Triple Crown.

“Calumet laid it over the competition like ice cream over spinach.”
– Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Red Smith

Warren Wright was born 138 years ago this fall in America’s heartland of Springfield, Ohio, the son of a traveling salesman, grandson of a miller, great-grandson of a tavern-keeper . . . blue-collar lineage back to 1636, when a Puritan ancestor turned up in this country seeking religious freedom.

As a boy, Warren likely knew or knew of his second cousins, Wilbur and Orville, contemporaries who grew up just a few cornfields away in Dayton. . . . He may or may not have been aware of a more distant Wright cousin named Frank Lloyd, whose boyhood was spent to the northwest in Wisconsin. But whether they knew one another or not is moot; there’s no denying that these Wright boys – Warren, Wilbur, Orville, and Frank –  were extraordinary, each destined to soar to the heights, literally or figuratively, and to embody the American dream in its finest form.

Humble beginnings

The youngest and least famous of this cousinly crew was Warren, whose September 1875 arrival followed Aristides’s victory in the inaugural Kentucky Derby by just four months. It was quite the coincidence, as man and race would come together years hence with a titanic clash of sporting cymbals that still resounds today.

Warren Wright’s father, William Monroe Wright, had spent a fair portion of his son’s early years on Midwestern roads, going town to town hawking such wares as “Dr. Price’s Baking Powder.” But the nomadic lifestyle didn’t suit him. Imbued with the extended Wright clan’s fiercely inventive spirit, the restless huckster eventually moved his family to Chicago, exchanged his salesman’s hat for an entrepreneurial one, and sank every penny of his $3,500 life’s savings into a venture that would make or break him.

Alongside chemist George Rew, Wright worked day and night developing a baking powder with faster leavening action, an end-product unveiled in 1889 under the name “Calumet” – a Native American term for peace pipe, and a well-known place name around Chicago. Did it work as advertised? Do birds fly? In 2013, Calumet Baking Powder can still be found on grocery store shelves across America – in a near-identical version of its original red, white, and blue can with the profile of an Indian chief in full headdress.

William Wright got the ball rolling, but his company’s long-term success would depend largely on his only son, a smart, ambitious young man who joined the company at age 15 and scrambled up the corporate ladder with breathless speed. Some might argue nepotism, but fact is, Warren more than earned the confidence his father placed in him.

When William Wright began easing into retirement in the late 1890s, taking up trotting horses as a pastime, Warren Wright moved into the void, aggressively building, improving, and expanding the family business. It was not until age 44 in 1919 that he found time to meet and marry a proper girl – Lucille Parker, a Kentucky belle more than two decades his junior. The following year the newlyweds adopted a son, Warren Wright Jr., and the family was set.

In 1924, William Wright, acquired 400-acre Fairland Farm near Lexington, Ky., from coal magnate Harry Schlesinger, renamed it Calumet, and commenced breeding top Standardbreds on the limestone rich acreage. Warren continued on in Chicago, relentless and determined as ever to make his family business the best it could be – enduring in the process a highly publicized 1929 home office holdup by eight armed men.

In business, timing can be everything. Just weeks before the stock market crash of ‘29, Warren Wright orchestrated a $32 million sale of Calumet Baking Soda Company to Postum (later, General Foods and, later yet, Kraft). As America entered a devastating economic depression, the Wright family flourished.

Success trumps snobbery

William Wright suffered a paralytic stroke in 1931 and died soon after, leaving a $30 million estate – including Calumet Farm – to Warren.

The son, who burned with a searing ambition, made a southward beeline to Kentucky . . . and the earth there must have trembled upon his arrival. It’s been said the old-guard horsey Bluegrass set had never quite accepted William Wright, but Warren cared not a whit about such nonsense. He had friends already whose company he enjoyed, fellow Chicagoans like chewing gum magnate William Wrigley and Yellow Cab founder John D. Hertz. If blue-blooded snobs didn’t think he was good enough, so what?

He quickly set about selling off Dad’s trotters, rebuilding barns to magnificent scale and painting them in the Calumet company’s devil’s red and white, cultivating vast velvet green pastures, whitewashing miles of fenceline, instituting a progressive equine nutrition program, and hiring top-notch personnel to turn the farm into a showplace to end all showplaces. Most importantly, he stocked the stalls and paddocks with the finest Thoroughbreds he could get his hands on – including 1924 Preakness winner Nellie Morse – then bought an expensive chunk of 1930 English Derby winner Blenheim II.

“The person who puts in the most money deserves to win the most races,” Wright later bluntly philosophized, and more than once. Money itself was never an object with him. Success was.

From the outset his racing plan was straightforward, deceptively simplistic, and not in the least bit humble: To become the very best in the business. For Wright, that meant one thing – winning the Kentucky Derby. It was a goal he pursued with pit bull determination to his final breath, with more success than anyone who ever lived.

The virtue of impatience

Calumet Farm’s first crop of Thoroughbred foals (1932) produced juvenile filly champion Nellie Flag, who finished fourth to eventual Triple Crown winner Omaha in the 1935 Derby. Not good enough, not nearly good enough. When Bull Lea, a colt Wright had paid a then-hefty $14,000 for as a yearling, ran eighth in the 1938 Derby, the owner fumed. (Bull Lea made up for his Derby deficit by becoming a five-time leading American sire and sire of Citation and numerous other Calumet stars.)

According to Lucille Wright (later Markey), her husband quickly lost patience with the wait. Five years and no Derby? Unacceptable. Discouraged, angry, frustrated, he began growling about replacing the Calumet Thoroughbreds with cattle. Trainer Frank Kearns didn’t get the job done in a New York minute, so was sent packing in 1939, and upon that departure Lucille Wright tried to calm her agitated husband by phoning a Midwestern horseman of some credentials. Would Ben Jones be interested in training for Calumet, a stable with money that flowed like the River Jordan? Yes, he would.

But even after Jones’s arrival and with a rising star by Blenheim II named Whirlaway in the barn, Wright remained pessimistic. “I’m going to win nothing,” he snapped irritably, in response to speculation that Whirly might be “the one.” This negative chatter intermittently continued regarding the virtues of cattle over racehorses, but stopped abruptly on May 3, 1941, the instant Whirlaway cruised to an eight-length Derby victory in the fastest 10 furlongs ever run at Churchill Downs.

Calumet Farm went on to lead the American breeders’ list a record 14 times, topped the owners’ standings on 12 occasions, and in 1947 became the first stable to top $1 million in single-season earnings. A record eight homebred Kentucky Derby winners came off that vaunted acreage along picturesque Versailles Road, seven Preakness winners, two Triple Crown winners, 18 national champions, and 11 future Racing Hall of Famers – Whirlaway, Citation, Coaltown, Bewitch, Armed, Twilight Tear, Real Delight, Tim Tam, Two Lea, Davona Dale, and Alydar. Not all of this was achieved while Wright was around to appreciate it, but the strong-willed little man in the rimless glasses and ever-present homburg hat had nevertheless planted the seeds from which greatness would grow for generations to come.

The successors

Warren Wright Sr. usually got what he wanted, but failed in attaining his final racing wish. A 1950 heart attack hit him hard, and in the end, he simply could not hold on long enough to witness Citation’s 1951 coronation as racing’s first equine millionaire. He died at his Miami Beach home on December 28, 1950.

Lucille Wright outlived her first husband by 32 years and became an industry leader in her own right. In 1952, she married Hollywood bon vivant Admiral Gene Markey and together they carried on Wright’s dream of raising and racing the world’s finest Thoroughbreds right up until their deaths in 1980 (him) and 1982 (her). More Derby winners came down the pike on Lucille Markey’s watch . . . Hill Gail in 1952, Iron Liege (’57), Tim Tam in (’58), and finally, Forward Pass, upon the 1968 disqualification of Dancer’s Image. But her best was Alydar, a non-champion and non-classic winner but a Hall of Famer and sire of great influence.

With the passing of Lucille Markey, Calumet’s 40-year reign at the top was over. It thereafter began a long, heart-breaking descent from glory to disgrace, through gross mismanagement, greed, and fraud. Buried in debt, the historic operation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 11, 1990.

Two years later, it was on the auction block.

“This is a trophy property,” enthused William Bone, vice president of the J.P. Auction Company hired to sell Calumet down to the highest bidder. “It’s like selling the Hope Diamond or the Waldorf-Astoria. You’re selling history.”

While Warren Wright undoubtedly would have approved that assessment, his head just as likely might have imploded over the atrocities perpetrated that brought Calumet to its knees. But he needn’t have worried. History sold for $17 million to Henryk de Kwiatkowski, a wealthy aeronautical engineer who swore not to change so much as a single blade of Calumet’s hallowed grass, a vow he kept to the gratitude of all who loved racing.

In 1998, history was again for sale, this time when 536 Calumet racing trophies appeared headed for auction in an ongoing effort to pay off old farm debt. Among those intervening on behalf of posterity were hundreds of school children, who donated their nickels, dimes, and quarters in a successful effort to keep the trophies on permanent display at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Calumet Farm continues on in 2013, in seemingly capable new hands, with an emphatic Preakness winner in Oxbow. Kentucky Derby winner Orb may lack current Calumet ties, but nevertheless boasts at least two distant crosses of the farm’s wonderful old 1940s and ’50s progenitor Bull Lea.

So, Warren Wright’s dream of being the best at everything he did was fully realized, and his legacy of excellence lives on . . . and on . . . and on. He built a corporate powerhouse around a product still found in stores a century later . . . then rewrote the history of the Sport of Kings in his own indelible devil’s red and blue ink.