It did not seem to be the best time for Nelson Bunker Hunt to be completing an interview, but there he was, returning a call from his Dallas office on the day after the stock market had gone blooey.
Asked about the market's nose-dive, Hunt said: "It doesn't bother me. I don't have too much money tied up in stocks."
But the 61-year-old Hunt and his younger brothers--William Herbert and Lamar--had money tied up in much of the world's silver in the 1970s and they have vast oil investments now, in a sliding industry. Consequently, there would appear to be no good time to talk to Bunker Hunt, even when the subject is his real love, thoroughbred horses.
But Hunt's horses--the ones he races and those that he breeds and sells to others--are doing better than ever. Twice the winner of the Eclipse Award as the best American breeder, Hunt's Bluegrass Farm in Lexington, Ky., bred horses that earned $5 million last year, and in a 12-month period that ended Sept. 1, he bred 22 horses that won stakes races.
With horses that Hunt has bred, or bought and then raced himself, he has earned about $2.5 million in purses this year. That, according to the Daily Racing Form, ranks him behind only Gene Klein on that list.
All of this success in the horse world will come to an end, however, with a dispersal at Keeneland Jan. 9-10, when 570 horses--broodmares, 2-year-olds and yearlings--will be sold at auction, along with Hunt's interests in about 50 stallions. Also to be sold are 8,000 acres of farm land that cover six counties in central Kentucky. Eventually, Hunt's racing stock is expected to go to auction.
The Hunt family's Placid Oil Co. is operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which has necessitated Bunker's equine sellout.
Bunker Hunt has faced serious business reversals before. He and his brothers probably lost $1 billion when silver prices hit bottom. But other than eating--before he discovered the Pritikin diet, it was not unusual to see Bunker in the Santa Anita walking ring with a box of popcorn in his hand--Hunt derives no greater pleasure than traveling widely to see one of his horses run in a major race.
Hunt has handled adversity with equanimity in the past, and he seems to be accepting the loss of this personal empire philosophically. After the silver crisis he said something worthy of Bartlett's collection of quotations: "A billion dollars isn't what it used to be."
Hunt seemed relieved to be talking about horses instead of his business pressures. Uncharacteristically, he and his brothers recently talked for days for an article that ran for eight pages in the New York Times Magazine.
He said he never read the story. "I gave up reading stories about me a long time ago," he said. "If they're bad, they make you mad, and if they're good, I find them embarrassing."
Talking about his horses the other day, Hunt said: "There's some sadness. But I'm not sitting at home brooding about it. Sometimes you buy and sometimes you sell, and this is the time to sell. It's the logical thing to do."
It was Hunt's wife, Caroline, who prodded him into leaving racing.
"She's been after me to cut down," Hunt said. "She said to me that at least I ought to unload half of the horses I have. But it's kind of hard to sell half of anything. My problem with horses is that I've liked every one I've ever had. But anyhow, I'm going to sell them all, and try to concentrate on my oil business."
Reminiscent of actor Ben Gazzara in "Run for Your Life," the old television series, Hunt is cramming as much horse activity as he can into the final days.
He has been at Del Mar and Santa Anita several times, and last weekend he was in Toronto to see a horse named Swink run--though not too well--in the Rothmans International, a race Hunt has won three times. On Oct. 31, he'll run Motley, a French-based horse, at Laurel, Md., in an attempt to win the Washington D.C. International for the fourth time.
"That's Motley, as in Motley County, Texas," Hunt said. "Not as in (the rock group) Motley Crue."
Hunt is phasing himself out of the game at a time when his operation is at an apex on both the racing and breeding fronts.
He is not the only one leaving. James and Virginia Binger's Tartan Stable, which has farms in both Kentucky and Florida, and Warner Jones, a prominent Kentucky breeder, are having dispersal sales in November. Financial problems have left commercial breeders such as Spendthrift Farm and Tom Gentry with doubtful futures, and many Kentucky farms are for sale because of the slumping bloodstock market.
Will racing recover from these voids?
"There'll always be new guys," Hunt said. "Allen Paulson has been around in recent years, spending a lot of money. So has Carl Icahn."
Hunt is belittling his own importance to the industry. Since 1964, he has bred close to 1,500 horses, 132 of the stakes winners. He owns farms in Texas and New Zealand, besides Kentucky, and at one point he was running horses in seven countries.