LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Brad Kelley isn’t fazed by the long odds facing his three horses in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.
The owner of Calumet Farm has overcome bigger hurdles restoring the storied stable’s presence on the racing radar.
For much of the 20th century, Calumet was the sport’s version of the New York Yankees. It produced a record eight Kentucky Derby champions, including Triple Crown winners Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (’48), and has had 22 horses Run for the Roses.
Calumet also endured a 21-year gap between entrants at Churchill Downs from 1992-2013 — a drought that included bankruptcy and a subsequent auction in the 1990s before Kelley bought the Lexington farm five years ago this week.
A four-year absence from the Derby ends Saturday with a trio of Kentucky-bred colts in Hence (15-1), Patch (30-1) and Sonneteer (50-1) all seeking the farm’s first victory since Forward Pass in 1968. No matter how it ends, Calumet’s return is welcome and fitting in a sport heavy on tradition.
“People relate to that (tradition), and whether they’re competitive or not, it gives credibility to the whole race,” said Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who has trained and won races with Calumet horses.
“I had no doubt they’d come back with the way Brad Kelley went about it. He stepped up and had already won the Preakness with Oxbow (in 2013), but his commitment is probably the strongest I’ve seen in recent years in trying to build a foundation. … He’ll be a force.”
Kelley, a Kentucky native, was well aware of Calumet’s history.
The billionaire who’s considered one of the nation’s largest land owners doesn’t do media interviews. But Kelley described Calumet’s Derby return as “very exciting” in an email to The Associated Press.
“Every year, you know the odds are going to be overwhelming against getting in and you know it may never happen again, so you do not take it for granted,” Kelley wrote.
An owner who got Optimizer to the Derby starting gate in 2012 with Bluegrass Hall LLC, Kelley takes a long-term approach in building a successful stable.
And he’s certainly cherished the rewards in reshaping Calumet, located just across the road from picturesque Keeneland in the heart of Bluegrass country. In the email, Kelley said the 799-acre farm was in more of a transition phase than bad shape when he took over.
“It had the benefit of some dedicated stewards in the years before our acquisition,” Kelley wrote. “It was a legend in so many ways. And an incredible brand in itself, which carries its own value.”
Oxbow gave Calumet and Kelley an immediate return by finishing sixth in the 2013 Derby before going on to win the Preakness. This spring, the pieces of a long-term approach have steadily fallen into place as good horses have blossomed with top-flight trainers.
Hence and Patch are trained by Hall of Famers Steve Asmussen and Todd Pletcher, respectively, and have combined for three wins in nine starts. Sonneteer is 0 for 10, but has four seconds, giving trainer Keith Desormeaux his second straight Derby starter.
Hence appears to have the best shot of Calumet’s trio after winning the Sunland Derby to go with a second and a third in six starts.
Asmussen believes having Calumet back on the scene, and with numbers to boot, certainly creates opportunities for its longshots. After all, there’s a heritage to uphold and update.
“Having three Calumet home-breds to run in the Derby is an impressive accomplishment, more so with the history,” said Asmussen, who’ll also saddle Lookin at Lee and Untrapped in the race. “You’re giving yourself a chance to put your name next to it.”
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