By Chris McGrath
The mystique around Calumet is such that it aptly discloses a nearly perfect anagram for “Camelot.” Both words evoke, not just an idealized past, but a yearning for the restoration of standards eroded during our unchivalrous times. Of course, Calumet has itself had its modern lapses, but there's no mistaking the wholesome intentions animating its latest ownership.
True, the methods of Brad Kelley and his team sometimes strike the orthodox observer as idiosyncratic, to put it mildly. But it makes sense to write a new chapter, in their own hand, rather than try to retrace the calligraphy of a bygone, irretrievable age. To some of us, moreover, the ends implicit in the Calumet program are as exemplary as the means can admittedly appear quixotic.
The volume is certainly industrial, yet with a superb contempt for the commercialism that sustain operations on a similar scale elsewhere. And someday the unfashionable values condensed in the stallion roster–hardiness, stamina, old-school genes and a good dash of turf quality–will perhaps be prized as critical to the regeneration of a breed corroded by short-term “pragmatism”: by pharmaceutical training, for instance, or fast-buck breeding.
These happen to be precisely those assets required in the GI Belmont S., the 153rd running of which has corresponding potential to measure the progress of the Calumet revival.
Most obviously, that's because the farm silks are carried by Bourbonic (Bernardini), winner of the GII Wood Memorial before failing to get involved in a GI Kentucky Derby dominated by those closer to the pace. His longshot success at Aqueduct had vindicated Calumet's familiar indifference to the wagering odds, and if Bourbonic can do the same Saturday, then you could measure his achievement against the rather surprising fact, given its record in the other Classics, that the farm has hitherto raced only two Belmont winners.
Both, moreover, were completing a Triple Crown. Of course, Alydar's epic duel with Affirmed, completing their Triple Exacta, arguably gave him as resonant a place in Calumet history as Whirlaway (1941) or Citation (1948), but one way or another Pensive (1944), Tim Tam (1958) and Forward Pass (1968) all found the Belmont a bridge too far.
Bourbonic is something of a bonus, having been acquired in utero when his Grade II-winning dam Dancing Afleet (Afleet Alex) was recruited to the broodmare band for $170,000 at the Keeneland November Sale of 2017. Arguably, then, the stakes are barely less high in Hot Rod Charlie (Oxbow), who is throwing a lifeline to a stallion drifting perilously close to the weir.
Oxbow entered Kelley's ownership just as he was ramping up his ambitions on the Turf, purchased for $250,000 at the 2011 September Sale the year before he took over Calumet. Bred by Colts Neck Stables, he had a wonderful two-turn pedigree: by Awesome Again out of an unraced sister to Tiznow (and so to Budroyale and the rest of the crew).
His debut at Saratoga the following summer could scarcely have been less auspicious, pulled up and vanned off. Within the year, however, he had completed a hectic career under D. Wayne Lukas. Having required another three attempts to break his maiden, he ran fourth in the GI Futurity on the synthetic at Hollywood Park. Lukas then put him through monthly Derby trials and, though his performances were uneven, they did include an 11-length romp in the GIII Lecomte S. and a narrow defeat by Will Take Charge (Unbridled's Song) in the GII Rebel S.
Lukas had laid his foundation and Oxbow's sixth to Orb (Malibu Moon) was a fine effort in what remains the last Derby to set up for a closer, stubbornly the last to relent among those exposed to the pace. Able to control a less exacting tempo at Pimlico, he duly lasted home for Calumet's eighth GI Preakness.
Proceeding to the Belmont, he was thwarted only by Palace Malice (Curlin) and duly qualified as the premier overall achiever across the Classics that year. Unfortunately, he then emerged from the GI Haskell Invitational with an ankle injury that brought down the curtain, but Oxbow had established himself as a throwback, speed-carrying scrapper with a pedigree worth recycling.
With the new regime at Calumet evidently finding its feet, Oxbow was launched with 110 mares at Taylor Made, but he came “home” for 2015. Here, with the broodmare band expanding, he was favored with a remarkable sequence of books, corralling 134, 153 and 187 covers through his second to fourth years.
Hot Rod Charlie is a graduate of that monster fourth book. By the time Bob and Sean Feld picked him out as a $17,000 short yearling, the last horse from the estate of Edward A. Cox Jr., Oxbow had already been renounced by the commercial market. Even the rise of his half-brother Mitole (Eskendereya) could not inflate an inspired pinhook beyond $110,000 when Dennis O'Neill found him back at Fasig-Tipton that October.
The big question is whether Hot Rod Charlie has broken out in time to redeem his sire. Oxbow's next three books plunged giddily to 78, 23 and 15. On the face of it, you would have to conclude that the Calumet team had themselves come to the same conclusion as the market. From nearly 600 covers across his first four seasons, he hadn't really seized his chance.
True, he came up with GII Gulfstream Oaks winner Coach Rocks from his first crop. But Oxbow had only one other graded stakes winner before Hot Rod Charlie, who will duly be credited by many to a mare who contrived to produce a champion sprinter by a stallion meanwhile exported to South Korea. Remember that Oxbow's close relative Paynter, retired in the same intake, is operating at almost double the strike-rate in terms of black-type winners and performers. Hot Rod Charlie, then, unmistakably finds his sire at a crossroads.
Now it may be that he has never really had much quality to back up the quantity. Yes, Calumet is throwing volume across the board–an approach, in 2019, that restored the farm as leading breeder by prizemoney for the first time since 1961, and its racetrack division (intended to develop families and support the breeding program) to second in the owners' table. But Oxbow's covering history suggests that he can't ever have had much outside support from mares that might have brought him a little commercial zip.
That's hardly surprising, in that he wasn't really priced to invite them. For if there has been one aspect of Calumet's roster that made even its admirers a little uncomfortable, it was a pricing structure that set a challenging premium on assets culpably under-rated by the marketplace. Fair enough: why should Calumet undervalue the breed's family silver just because others do? But that does make it hard to sell to outside clients aspiring to some kind of dividend at auction.
Take a look at the 2018 roster. To be fair, at $25,000 English Channel was becoming as accomplished a stallion as you can find anywhere, at that kind of price, but the puerile treatment of turf horses by the commercial market made him an option principally for end users. Next came Keen Ice, introduced at $20,000. Oxbow was standing at the same fee; Bal a Bali (Brz) and Big Blue Kitten were offered at $15,000; and Red Rocks (Ire) was $10,000.
This spring, however, Calumet joined virtually every other farm in making fee cuts in the pandemic economy. But their action was more decisive than most, and the result was a roster that suddenly looks far more accessible. English Channel, having been elevated to $35,000 as he increasingly stood comparison to Kitten's Joy, was trimmed back to $27,500. Keen Ice was cut from $20,000 to $9,500; as a relative newcomer, Ransom The Moon was pegged at $7,500, but rookie Bravazo was pitched into play at just $6,000; Bal a Bali was slashed from $15,000 to $5,000; and Big Blue Kitten, from $10,000 to $5,000. And Oxbow, freshly decorated by a GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up, was now trading at $7,500.
There's a timeless message on a splendid clocktower recently added to one of the colleges at Oxford University. On one side are carved the words: “It's later than you think.” On the next you read: “…but it's never too late.” That's just about where Oxbow stands now.
It would be a pity for this conduit of such good blood to dry up altogether. Paynter, as mentioned, is reiterating the potency of their family–he's out of another of Tiznow's unraced sisters–while their late sire Awesome Again has bequeathed a dynamism on dirt (seen at its mightiest in Ghostzapper) that has made him the vital linchpin of the Deputy Minister sire-line. That's especially comforting, given Deputy Minister's iconic influence not just as a broodmare sire, but also as a sire of broodmare sires. So whatever else Oxbow can still do, some breeders will surely try their luck with his daughters.
Calumet clients, incidentally, can tap into a double dose of Deputy Minister through Keen Ice. He's by Curlin (whose damsire is Deputy Minister) out of an Awesome Again mare, and showed the trademark Deputy Minister constitution in earning $3.4 million across four seasons. From an aristocratic family, Keen Ice now looks particularly good value for breeders who might retain a filly. His first juveniles are off the mark already, but we know that they will only get better.
By the same token, Oxbow may himself retain half a chance to claw a way back via the foothold he has found in Hot Rod Charlie. So many of this sire-line's premier achievers, from Knicks Go to Game On Dude, have thrived with maturity that perhaps a few others, among the maturing graduates of those big books, can now follow in Hot Rod Charlie's slipstream.
All in all, then, a Belmont success for either Bourbonic or a son of Oxbow would showcase precisely those speed-carrying, two-turn dirt genes that first exalted Calumet. With a positive test dangling over Medina Spirit (Protonico), many people have this spring been remembering the farm's promoted Derby winner Forward Pass. The disqualification of Dancer's Image that year was far too complex a tale to reprise here, but certainly created unease about the possibility of a Triple Crown falling into the lap of Forward Pass.
In 2021, however, the Belmont could help everyone recognize the service Calumet is offering a sport facing a painful battle with so many corner-cutting practices. Oxbow is the first Preakness winner to stand there since Forward Pass. And whether or not he can renew his career with Hot Rod Charlie, or Bourbonic ends up joining the likes of Keen Ice in fighting the good fight, Calumet is sketching out a new chapter, not just in its own long history but in that of the whole industry.
Kelley and his team have grasped that soundness and durability, backed up by deep pedigrees, can actually make a precarious business more sustainable. Someday, as such, breeding a horse for the sales ring might even become the same as breeding a horse for the racetrack. It's a long haul, for sure. But where better to start than a race like the Belmont?