MY TURN: It was a 'Wild Ride' indeed for a stately thoroughbred farm


Her name was Bertha Wright and she was my ticket to a front row, finish line seat to the Kentucky Derby, long known as the “fastest two minutes in sports.”

When we met in the mid-‘80s, Mrs. Wright was the widow of Warren Wright Jr., whose parents, Warren and Lucille Wright, owned Calumet Farm, the world famous thoroughbred racing outpost that for decades was the crown jewel of Lexington, Ky.

The farm – which produced eight Kentucky Derby winners, two of whom won the Triple Crown – was built upon the success of Calumet Baking Powder, a company that traces its roots to the late 19th century and is now owned by Kraft Foods. It is spread over some 800 rolling acres, lined with an astonishing 35 miles of white fencing. Calumet also features a series of well-appointed barns for stallions and broodmares, along with a 5/8th of a mile training track with an infield turf course.

Then, of course, there’s also a barn complete with an indoor pool that is used to nurse lame horses back to health. It is a short gallop away from the horse cemetery, a monument to the Calumet’s Kentucky Derby winners, including Triple Crown champs Whirlaway and Citation.

For years, attending the Kentucky Derby had been high on my “bucket list,” even if from a cheap seats vantage point. There was a certain fascination with the event, which takes place annually on the first Saturday of May
and brings out bluebloods from across the nation to the 1-1/4-mile track at Churchill Downs in Louisville.

In 1985, six years into my newspaper career and three years after becoming a parent, the decision to attend the Derby was a financial stretch, only made possible by some moonlighting work that put some extra dough in my pocket. Still, the trip to sip a mint julep was going to be on the budget plan with the hope that a smartly placed bet or two could help defray travel expenses.

A month before the Derby experience was set to unfold, a chance meeting between my then mother-in-law and the queen of Calumet, Bertha Wright, brought the promise of a coveted private tour of the world-famous horse farm. The tour was scheduled for the day before the Derby and figured to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to taste the Kentucky high-life.

In reality, it was that and much more, as Mrs. Wright rolled out the red carpet for two northerners she had just met, orchestrating an eye-opening journey through horse racing history. At the end of the two-hour tour, which took place under sunny skies and in shirt-sleeve temperatures, Mrs. Wright asked if we needed seats for Saturday’s “Run for the Roses.”

As soon as I mentioned that we were going to take our chances with scalpers, she politely excused herself and headed into an adjoining study, returning a few minutes later with an unexpected present in hand.

Two tickets to the Derby, front row, upper deck box seats, squarely at the finish line.

“Please enjoy them,” she said. “These are extras and it would make me very happy to have you enjoy your first Derby in style.”

Needless to say, we were flabbergasted at her generosity, especially since the prime seats carried a hefty $240 price tag apiece. The total cost of $480 was some $300 more than we had in our pockets, which made for a particularly queasy feeling that suddenly swept over us.

Fortunately, Mrs. Wright immediately sensed our unease as we began to reach for our billfolds, evidently knowing full well that we would come up as short as a lame horse limping down the homestretch.

“Please, put your wallets away,” she admonished us in her southern drawl. “These tickets are my way of extending some Kentucky hospitality.”

The next day dawned bright as we clutched the coveted ducats, which paved the way into the deluxe section of Churchill Downs. Before the featured race unfolded, we enjoyed the trappings of an eight-race undercard, all the while people-watching as high-flyers from the business, political, and entertainment worlds sauntered by two horse racing neophytes.

Since we were feeling exceedingly lucky that day, we headed to the betting window, mustering up enough courage to place a $20 wager on a long shot that had the inviting name of “Spend a Buck.” The brown stallion, whose sire was the aptly named “Buckaroo,” proved to be a winner, romping to a 5-3/4-length victory at the hands of famed jockey Angel Cordero Jr.

Spend a Buck proved to be the best investment in our young married life, paying $10.20 for each $2 wagered. Suddenly, we seemed rich, basking in the afterglow of fresh twenties that unexpectedly came our way.

Of course, the proper thing to do was to turn over our winnings to Mrs. Wright, but we decided not to risk insulting a woman of such considerable wealth by offering a paltry payback.

Years later, we wished for a do-over after reading about the tragic tale of Calumet’s demise. The story was told by award-winning writer Ann Hagedorn Auerbach, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, in the 1994 book “Wild Ride: The Rise and Tragic Fall of Calumet Farm.”

The book is a true page-turner, offering in sordid detail how the greed and wheeling-dealing of Mrs. Wright’s son-in-law, Calumet CEO J.T. Lundy, derailed the horse racing dynasty, leaving it awash in debts of more than $167 million. His reign would cost Calumet dearly, reportedly plunging the farm and many members of the Wright family into bankruptcy.

Lundy eventually landed in jail for his series of misdeeds, convicted of fraud and bribery, leaving behind a trail of destruction that engulfed family, friends, and financiers.

Ever more sadly, Mrs. Wright was assigned a different fate, chased by creditors from stately Calumet, forced to sell her vast personal possessions, including furniture, glassware, and artwork. When she died in the summer of 2014 at the age of 94, she was a shadow of her former self, unduly stripped of the ability to perform her trademark charity work and to offer financial help to those who needed it most around the Bluegrass State.

Now, with Calumet under new ownership and by all accounts on solid financial footing, those steering the stately farm would do well to remember a cautionary tale framed by the wagering window.