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Nelson Bunker Hunt left indelible mark
Editor’s note: This article on Eclipse Award-winning breeder Nelson Bunker Hunt, who died a few weeks ago, is a recollection of the childhood experiences of Daily Racing Form staff writer Mary Rampellini. She grew up on Hunt’s ranch near Dallas, where her father, Ralph Rampellini, developed his yearlings and served as racing manager for Hunt’s stable that competed in Europe and North America.
ROANOKE, Texas – Nelson Bunker Hunt’s influence on racing has been felt in a sweeping way over the past month.
It was Hunt who purchased a yearling named Palace Music, the sire of recently deceased Cigar, the horse remembered for capturing a nation back in 1995-96. And it was Hunt who served as confidant to the late John Gaines when Gaines began to formulate a concept that would become the Breeders’ Cup. The championship series had its 31st renewal Friday and Saturday at Santa Anita Park.
“When I came up with the Breeders’ Cup, the only person I talked about it with was Bunker Hunt,” Gaines said in a 2004 interview with Daily Racing Form . “He kept telling me, ‘You need to get this going.’ He was the catalyst to seeing it through.”
For the first time, Hunt missed seeing the big show. He died Oct. 21 after leaving an imprint on racing few will ever match.
Hunt was one of just a handful of worldwide players who had the financial means to make the sport’s wheels turn at auction houses and racetracks from Europe to North America. His international stable boasted Dahlia, the first female to earn $1 million; Exceller, who defeated Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup; and Empery, winner of the Epsom Derby. Hunt’s breeding operation, led by Vaguely Noble, turned out classic-distance horses, preserving the centuries-old tradition of the Thoroughbred.
Together, Hunt’s racing and breeding interests formed an empire that reigned in the 1970s and 1980s. For many years, the roots of that dynasty were firmly planted in Hunt’s adopted home state of Texas. The Circle T Ranch in Westlake, a small town north of Dallas, was the landing spot for a crop of 100 to 120 yearlings each season, homebreds and auction buys who were developed on a 2,200-acre range with dirt and turf training surfaces.
Graduates of the program were shipped to several racetracks and yards, with The Circle T having helped turn out offspring of Dahlia as well as a litany of major stakes winners like Lively One, Adept, Swink, Talinum, Reloy, Eastland, and Fact Finder. The Circle T also produced Hunt’s first Kentucky Derby starter, Rockwall.
Hunt’s racing stable of about 500 horses was managed day-to-day from the farm’s offices. His runners competed on a global scale with trainers such as D. Wayne Lukas, Buster Millerick, Lefty Nickerson, Jonathan Pease, John Sullivan, Sylvester Veitch, Charlie Whittingham, Frank Wright, and Maurice Zilber. Some of his trainers came to Texas to inspect the yearlings.
The Circle T also drew dignitaries, celebrities, and athletes for fundraising galas, photo shoots, or to marvel at Hunt’s horses. The mix of visitors included the Queen Mother, Bob Hope, Prince Rainier of Monaco, and a horse-crazy Charlton Heston.
The glamour of it all was not lost on a young girl whose father was charged with training the yearlings and serving as Hunt’s racing manager. But there were also life-shaping lessons learned on The Circle T, many from Hunt himself, who at one time was the world’s richest man. Hunt’s humility, generosity, active faith life, gracious nature, and treatment of all with dignity are virtues I strive to embody to this day. They were what a child most took away from Hunt’s regular trips to The Circle T, where he would come to watch his horses train on numerous Saturday mornings. Afterward, there might be a visit to our home – which was really his, of course – for refreshments and a break from the elements.
During those times, Hunt never inhibited the innocent optimism that is a gift of childhood. He listened to my elementary-school presentation on free enterprise. Who knew more about the subject? He watched my homespun Thanksgiving play, then asked my actor-sister how the pilgrims got to Plymouth Rock. The answer: “Delta!”
Hunt took my family to basketball and football games, welcomed us to dinners with guests like football coach Buddy Ryan, and hand-delivered heartfelt gifts on Christmas Eve. The Circle T, listed by a major magazine as one of the 10 most beautiful places in the world, was Hunt’s escape. It was where he celebrated milestones alongside family and contemplated pursuits with his stable.
Hunt took delight in his horses. He often inspected each set of 20 yearlings in an arena before the group headed to the track to train. The horses stood like soldiers in his presence, and it was his joy to float between them, inquiring about each one’s progress. He considered their discipline as much a training feat as winning races.
Since the loss of Hunt, I’ve found myself reflecting on the many stories from The Circle T era, which came to a close in the late 1980s. Some of the bits and pieces packed away in the trunk of childhood are just starting to re-emerge. I hazily recall word of a break-in at one of Hunt’s residences, after which he simply asked about the status of a single item – a trophy given to him by Queen Elizabeth II. It represented a life experience, something all of the contents of the house combined could never equal nor replace.
Hunt’s generosity and fearless nature cultivated unforgettable experiences for many people. During one session of the Keeneland July sale, he allowed a young boy to cast a bid on his behalf for fun and ended up with the yearling. (If memory serves, it was a kindness costing somewhere around $80,000.) Hunt’s love of people extended to acts like giving his brand-new winter coat to a man who asked for it and gifting his Cadillac to a stable worker.
On another occasion, he hired a man whose dream was to train for him after reading about Dahlia.
For the latter gift, I will be forever grateful .
In 1979, I had a stakes winning broodmare for sale and was told to call Bunker Hunt's office in Dallas. I called after hours hoping to leave a message, but the phone was answered by Nelson himself. i was horrified, but he calmed me down, asked me what I was selling. Two days later he called me back and we made a deal. On my end I was created out of my commission, but that was not Hunt's fault. That's part of the business. For such a powerful man Nelson Bunker Hunt was gentle and friendly. He will truly one of the characters of the game. RIP