Jury Questions Death Of Alydar

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The glory that was Calumet Farm is reflected in the brass nameplates affixed to five oaken paddock doors in the most storied stallion barn in thoroughbred history.

Designating past occupants, they represent a roll call of some of racing's greatest horses: Triple Crown winners Citation and Whirlaway, and Kentucky Derby champs Forward Pass, Pensive and Ponder.

There is a sixth stall in the white-brick and red-trim barn. It stands doorless. Its unhinged gate leans against an inside wall amid the dusty remains of past bedding and the pungent smell of old feed.

"They came and took the door a couple of months ago," said Vadonna Jones, secretary for Calumet. "They finally sent it back."

"They" are investigators for a federal grand jury in Houston. The jury is looking into the demise of the stall's last occupant, Alydar. Specifically, the jury is trying to determine if Alydar - the chestnut stallion that mesmerized the racing world 20 Triple Crown seasons ago and went on to become the world's top breeding stallion - was killed for his $36 million insurance coverage.

The only horse ever to finish second in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, and one of the most beloved thoroughbreds ever, Alydar was found in his stall in November 1990 with a shattered right hind leg. The injury was ruled an accident, believed to have been caused when Alydar kicked his stall door. Now the grand jury has indicted the groom on watch that night on charges of lying about what transpired. His trial starts next month.

Alydar's remains lie beneath a pale white and gray marble headstone in Calumet's horse cemetery, and the case has taken on all the trappings of a Dick Francis mystery. Who or what killed Alydar?

Suspicions were raised almost immediately.

John Veitch, Alydar's trainer, and others have challenged those who have claimed that the horse was overly spirited and known for violently kicking his stall.

"He was very easy to manage, very easy to train," Veitch said. "I find it a very unusual injury. That stallion barn had been there a very long time. It had been built to absorb a lot of punishment."

Then, it was learned that Calumet, the paragon of Kentucky breeding farms, was more than $120 million in debt and facing the cancellation of much of Alydar's insurance coverage for nonpayment. Calumet president J.T. Lundy had presold so many seasons of breeding rights to Alydar and spent the money lavishly on Calumet that the farm stood to see no income from the horse in the coming year.

Alydar's death ultimately set in motion the collapse of a financial house of cards that ended with Calumet being sold in bankruptcy, accusations of skulduggery, and the impaneling of a grand jury in Houston, the site of Calumet's chief creditor, First City Bankcorp of Texas. First City collected $20 million of Alydar's insurance payment, the largest equine insurance settlement in history.

Just a 15-minute drive from downtown Lexington, Calumet Farm is set like a jewel amid the rolling hills of Kentucky's Bluegrass Country, its 837 acres of pastures crisscrossed by miles of white oak-plank and locust-post fencing.

The farm is now owned by Henryk de Kwiatkowski, a native of Poland who earned a fortune selling used planes and aircraft parts. It seems certain, however, that Calumet will be forever tied to the Wright family, which used a baking-powder fortune to build the world's most celebrated racing and breeding farm.

Established in 1924, Calumet was just one of many horse farms in Bluegrass Country until 1941, when one of its 3-year-olds - Whirlaway - swept the Triple Crown.

"When Whirlaway won, boy oh boy, hordes of people just poured into the farm," recalled Margaret Glass, 77, who served as business manager of the farm until 1982. "It just snowballed from there."

From 1940 to 1962, Calumet produced two Triple Crown winners, eight Kentucky Derby winners and seven horses of the year, and it was ranked the top horse farm in annual earnings 16 times.

"Calumet Farm was like the New York Yankees of the '30s, '40s and '50s," Veitch said. "Even if you didn't know anything about horse racing, you heard of Calumet Farm."

The farm's fortunes lagged in the 1960s and 1970s, only to be revived by Alydar.

In 1978, Alydar and Affirmed ran an epic Triple Crown series. Affirmed won each race, but only by holding off a determined Alydar each time. The final contest, the Belmont, was decided by less than the length of a horse's head after the pair had matched strides for the last mile. Affirmed won the Triple Crown, but Alydar captured the public's imagination with his gutsiness.

"The American people love an underdog," said Veitch, explaining Alydar's appeal. "He is the only horse ever to finish second in all three races, and in doing so he immortalized himself."

If Alydar could not outperform Affirmed on the track, he certainly did in the breeding shed. He became the horse industry's top sire, his bloodline including seven horses that won more than $1 million in purses. By 1991, his progeny's total earnings exceeded $35 million. His breeding rights were sold for as much as $350,000 per mare.

Alydar's emergence as Calumet's cash cow coincided with the arrival of J.T. Lundy as Calumet's president in 1982.

Lundy, who was married to the great granddaughter of the farm's founder, forced out most of the old Calumet staff, including Veitch and Glass, and embarked on a spending spree of enormous portions. Among Lundy's purchases for the farm were a $1.6 million jet, a $1 million veterinary hospital, and a $1 million equine swimming pool and rehabilitation complex. For a time, he was spending $12,000 a month to refurbish the farm's trademark fences. Another $25 million went to purchase a top European stud.

To pay for it all, Lundy increasingly sold breeding rights to Alydar. Typically, a stallion might be bred 50 to 60 times a year. Alydar was servicing as many as 100 mares a year. His breeding rights were being sold seasons in advance.

Despite Alydar's prodigious efforts in the breeding shed - he bred Derby winners Alysheba (1987) and Strike the Gold (1991) - Calumet slipped into debt. How deep was not clear until 1992, when Lundy was forced out as president and replaced by John T. Ward Jr., a respected trainer and horse farm owner brought in by family shareholders.

"When we looked at the farm's financial condition, it became apparent that the farm was $120 million in debt," Ward said. "What we found were a lot of very poor business practices, a lot of excess spending, and a lot of desperate deals trying to raise cash so Calumet could operate from month to month."

Lundy, who moved to Ocala, Fla., after Calumet went bankrupt, could not be reached for comment. In the past, through his attorney, the now-deceased Montjoy Trimble, Lundy maintained that the farm failed because of an industry-wide collapse in the late 1980s and not because of mismanagement.

Against this backdrop of the farm's financial troubles, Alydar's death stands in stark relief.

The facts of the case are seemingly straightforward.

On the night of Nov. 13, 1990, Alton Stone, a Calumet groom, was working as night watchman. He told investigators that he had been asked to work the shift by the regular night watchman, Harold "Cowboy" Kipp.

Stone testified before the grand jury that he left the stallion barn unattended for about 15 minutes between 9:30 and 9:45 that night. When he returned, he realized something was amiss.

"I heard a horse nickering. . . . He was hollering, you know, like `come get me' or something," Stone testified. "So I walked, run, straight back to Alydar's stall, just out of reflex. I always check him first, you know, because he was the No. 1 man there. . . . There he stood at the door, wringing with sweat. . . . I more or less panicked. . . . I knowed right then to go get the veterinarian."

Alydar's right rear cannon bone was broken, the lower leg hanging by its tendons. On the floor of the stall was a metal bracket that normally held the stall's sliding door in place. It appeared to have been torn from its floor moorings.

Among those called to the barn that night was Larry Bramlege, one of the nation's top equine orthopedists.

Bramlege, who maintains a practice at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, a Lexington landmark, concluded that the break was consistent with an injury that would have been caused if Alydar had kicked the stall door loose and then caught his hoof in the gap between the door and its bottom bracket. There was no indication that the break had been caused by a deliberate blow from a bat or club, Bramlege has repeatedly told interviewers.

Tom Dixon, an insurance adjuster who would have to approve any claim on Alydar, was also called to the barn.

"If they were putting on an act, they deserve an Academy Award," Dixon said of Lundy and other Calumet employees he found when he arrived. "J.T., he was almost in tears. He was on the phone begging Dr. Bramlege to come to the farm to do something."

Bramlege operated on Alydar, setting his leg with a metal plate and encasing the entire limb in a cast. Two days later, Alydar slipped from his sling, rebreaking the leg, and was euthanized. Dixon judged his injury to be an accident, thereby approving the insurance payout by Lloyds of London and the other carriers that had provided coverage.

Since Alydar's death, as the extent of Calumet's financial troubles became clear, questions surrounding that night have grown.

But Dixon, in an interview, expressed exasperation that any questions remain about the horse's death.

"You just had to be there that night," Dixon said. "You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. I mean this was the leading stallion in the world, and this was the biggest equine insurance claim ever. My reputation and credibility were on the line. . . .

"I've been interviewed by the FBI three times. I've been interviewed by the IRS. I've been interviewed by the grand jury. All they have gotten so far is an indictment of a night watchman. All there is to this story is rumor, innuendo and gossip."