Said Nick Nicholson, executive vice president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Assn.: "I don't think racing can replace important people like Bunker Hunt, Warner Jones and the Bingers. Their contributions to racing transcend the mere existance of their farms.
"Warner Jones has been the chairman of Churchill Downs, an important member of the American Horse Council. John Nerud (Tartan's president) has been a spokesman for the business and a strong advocate for Florida breeding. Bunker Hunt stepped up to the plate when they were trying to organize the Breeders' Cup and he's been a major force in international racing."
Although his father, the legendary gambler and oil wildcatter, H.L. Hunt, gave Bunker a mare named Lady when he was 8, Bunker didn't buy his first horse until he was about 30. Ed Stephenson, who roomed with Hunt in prep school, took him to a Kentucky sale and Bunker wound up buying six horses.
They didn't amount to much, and Hunt even ran a claiming stable for a time, not concentrating on top horses until the 1960s.
A few years later, Hunt lost out trying to buy Vaguely Noble, an English-bred colt, but the successful bidder, Dr. Robert Franklyn, sold 50% interest to Hunt for about $170,000. Vaguely Noble won the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 1968 and then became an outstanding sire in Kentucky.
Dahlia, a daughter of Vaguely Noble, was a champion in England and the United States and will be sold in January. Vaguely Noble also sired Empery, who in 1976 won the English Derby for Hunt, five days before his stablemate, Youth, won the French Derby.
It is a tossup for Hunt whether Youth or Exceller has been his best horse. For bargains, the vote would have to go to Exceller, who was bought for $25,000 as a yearling and earned $1.6 million in the days before the $1-million races.
Although Exceller was a Vaguely Noble colt, he was not consigned to the 1974 sale by Hunt and was not even a horse on his prospective buy list. But when Hunt sent one of his trainers out of the sales pavilion to check another horse, he came back with the recommendation that they go for Exceller.
There were only two bids for the horse--an opening $24,000 and Hunt's $25,000, and after he got him, Hunt wanted to know what was wrong with the horse. The average price at the sale was almost $60,000.
It turned out that the only thing wrong with Exceller was that no matter how many races he won, the voters wouldn't award him a championship.
After a 3-year-old season in which he won major races in England, France and Canada, Exceller came to America under trainer Charlie Whittingham in 1978 and won six major races on both coasts, beating the two Triple Crown champions, Affirmed and Seattle Slew, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. Whittingham scratched his bald head when Exceller won none of the postseason honors.
Exceller's fire-sale price tag was an extreme, but Hunt has never waded in to compete for the big-ticket yearlings that have been sold at Kentucky auctions in the 1980s. A man whose wealth was once estimated to be $16 billion--Forbes magazine's annual survey had him down to $400 million last year--Hunt is widely known as a stinter who flies coach instead of first class and drives his own car instead of using limousines.
Hunt once said that he couldn't afford to compete with the Middle East oil money that the sheiks brought to the Kentucky sales.
"I guess the most I ever paid for a yearling was the $375,000 I paid for a horse named Respectfully," he said. "The horse didn't win a race."
Swink, a Hunt-bred son of Vaguely Noble, and Rivlia are horses that could provide a successful last hurrah for the roly-poly Texan in the Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park on Nov. 21.
"I'm glad some of these horses are going good now," Hunt said. "They might help the prices of the broodmares at the sale."
Whittingham trains both of those horses. "Don't count Bunker out," the trainer said. "he's not out till he's out."
Hunt is already talking about racing some of his horses next year, including Talinum, the Flamingo winner who was injured shortly before the Kentucky Derby and hasn't raced since. Hunt has never won the Derby and in fact didn't start a horse in the race until 1982.
"Who knows what will happen?" Hunt said. "I'll always be a racing fan, no matter what happens. I've met a lot of good people in this game. There's a lot of people in this game that are way above average."