Nelson Bunker Hunt
Nelson Bunker Hunt

Nelson Bunker Hunt

(Image : News4TheMasses/WZ)

“There is something about the outside of a horse,

that is good for the inside of a man.”

There was a beautifully bred filly in our catalogue in last month’s Summer version of the Ready To Run. She was a Mullins Bay half sister to one of the best fillies to graduate from Summerhill, Icy Air, and her accomplished younger brother, Ice Axe, a current stalwart in the Charles Laird yard. There’s a story behind most thoroughbreds, and this is one worth telling.

In the opening months of 1988, we attended one of the great dispersal sales of all-time. Shopping in America in those days was fun, and much of the foundation stock on Summerhill today came from the great Keeneland sale pavilion. The occasion was the selling up of one of the finest assemblies of breeding stock in America. It was a sale ring epic of de Millean flourishes, the dismemberment of Nelson Bunker Hunt’s lifetime in the breeding game.

It needs to be said at the outset: billionaires forfeit rights to sympathy. Convention says so. “Good old Bunker” is what Bunker Hunt called himself when he was on his southern kick. Once, and not long before, the Dallas oilman was the richest individual in the world. His commercial life read like a script that had been rejected by the producers of “Dallas” for being too improbable. Now the horses had to go. Old Bunker was having a billion dollar argument with the authorities, for having tried to corner the world silver market. He was caught up in a tangle of court cases, all of “group one” status. In a television prelude to the sale, he was asked what had gone wrong? “A billion dollars sure ain’t what it used to be,” was his famous reply.

The green-backed catalogue said it all, page-after-page blotted with black type, and the granddam of Icy Air (an elegant, jet black daughter of the great French classic sire, Luthier,) was among them. This is what you expect when rich men hold their dispersals. The difference here was there was a pattern, the same names kept re-occurring: Empery and Youth, Dahlia and Exceller, Trillion and Tryptich, and on many of the pages, the stallion Vaguely Noble. He made it all work for old Bunker, just as Northern Dancer did for E.P.Taylor, and Nasrullah for the Hancocks. Here, between green covers, was the swansong of some sort of pioneer, a rich man yes, but one who created families rather than buying them ready-made in the boozy euphoria of yearling sales.

Hunt ended his short foreword to the catalogue, sounding like some martyr on his way to crucifixion. “God bless you all,” he says. So, damn convention; you’re entitled to feel a little sadness that such a collection might go to the four winds, and that one of the turf’s free-thinkers is to be stopped in mid-thought by something so pedestrian as the cornering of the silver market.

As our Aussie mate, Les Carlyon, once observed, there are lots of theories for breeding performance animals. Some are rustic and ruthless. The Baguest brothers, who gave Australia the Blue Heeler, said they simply “bred a lot and drowned a lot,” until they got the animal true to type. The Runyonesque American Col. Edward Bradley, was determined to breed game, honest horses. This was because the greater love of his life was not horses, but betting on them. He needed reliable conveyances. He made the theory work by producing four Kentucky Derby winners.

Before the Arabs came and spoiled their fun, Robert Sangster and Vincent O’Brien figured that Northern Dancer was a rather special stallion, and if you bought a half dozen or so of his colts each year, you might be able to syndicate the best performing of them as a stallion for, say, $30million. That’s where Sadler’s Wells, Nijinsky, Storm Bird, El Gran Senor and The Minstrel came from. Count Lehndorff, the Prussian thoroughbred authority of two centuries back, listed the three most important qualities in the racehorse as soundness, soundness and soundness. In answer to the same question, Atty Persse, the Irish trainer, said no, it is speed, speed, and speed. The theory worked for him: he trained a comet called The Tetrarch, but didn’t have many high class winners at a mile and a half. Tesio, the legendary Italian, never worried that visitors thought his foals looked poor in the paddock. He was not breeding fat cattle for the yearling sales, but for his own racing stable, and he got it right enough to give us Nearco and Ribot (not to mention Donatello.)

The old Aga Khan used Colonel Vuillier, the dosage system man, as a pedigree expert, but always asked the famous English trainer, George Lambton to check that Vullier’s clever pool of genes could also walk. Lord Wavertree, the brewer from Liverpool, believed in the stars and plotted horoscopes for all his foals. Before you scoff, it should be mentioned that he won the Derby and the Oaks, and from cheap mares, bred the second dams of Hyperion, Blandford, Big Game and Princequillo. The men from Doordrecht, the Birch Bros, who set the South African benchmark for Breeders’ titles, picked their stallions on the basis of a good racehorse by a recognizable sire, though you might give a little on the female side.

Bunker Hunt deserves mention in the same company. He based everything on two principles. The first, which has been little discussed, was to adhere to the old canon that well-bred beasts should be able to travel a mile and a half. “That old English system has stood up for just a little too long to be dismissed by me” he told us some years ago. The second Hunt principle, which has been much discussed, is that race performances are a more desirable attribute in a broodmare than a lovely pedigree. He could not acquire them in Europe or North America because of cost and availability, so he raided the world and began an experiment in hybrid vigour. He bought in Australia, Argentina, Chile and Peru. By 1962, Hunt owned 39 Stakes-winning fillies from nine countries, and he proceeded to breed 132 Stakes horses from them, in a quarter of a century.

He proved something. He was an original. Now it was all to be sold, and one presumed good old Bunker wouldn’t be doing much bidding at future bloodstock sales. As we leafed through the Hunt catalogue, we were reminded about the turf being a great leveller. In the end, on the turf, and beneath it, all men are equal.

P.S. We were wrong in our assumption about old Bunker. He’s back on his feet now, and the first thing he did was to return and make a stir in the ring at Keeneland. As Richard III once remarked: “There is something about the outside of a horse, that is good for the inside of a man.”