by Amanda O’Toole Mason
The rising sun creates a fire-like glow on the rolling hills at Calumet Farms in Lexington, Kentucky on a drizzly fall morning. Forty-four miles of white-planked fence dot the 850-acre historic thoroughbred farm, which has seen eight Kentucky Derby winners and the most Triple Crown champions in the history of the sport.
Business is bustling in the early dawn hours as the farm’s 90-plus employees tend to yearlings, mares and dozens of would-be legends inside red-trimmed white barns.
The storied farm has had a tumultuous past after a series of events left its facilities in decline and its bloodlines weakened. Teetering on the brink of liquidation in the early 1990s, the farm was saved by Henry de Kwiatkowski, whom locals say vowed to maintain Calumet’s legacy.
The last seven years have seen a rebirth of this Kentucky Blue Grass mainstay under the direction of farm manager Bill Witman, a 1972 animal sciences graduate who was hired on in 2004 shortly after de Kwiatkowski’s passing. His strategy was a three pronged attack; upgrade the broodmares, the physical plant and business operations.
“This farm belongs to the people of Lexington and to the purebred industry,” says Witman, donned in a black cowboy hat and silver spurs that bare his first name. “We have a responsibility to keep the fences white, the farm busy. There’s a certain charm and charisma the farm exudes.”
Some changes he’s implemented are subtle. Trees are pruned annually and buildings and fence — 10 miles each summer — have a painting schedule.
Others are more noticeable. Witman has grown commercial business at the farm by introducing post-operation services for horses recovering from training injuries and increasing the number of clients who either board their horses or request Calumet train them.
David Switzer, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, says that Witman has made a name for himself in the thoroughbred industry with his quiet demeanor and willingness to try new things, specifically with the way he breaks horses. Witman contracts cowboys from places like Wyoming and South Dakota to train yearlings. The process takes about a month to complete.
“It is a bit unusual when you see somebody who is willing to come in and break tradition. That’s what Bill has done,” Switzer says, who adds that Witman’s practices have been accepted within the industry.
“The cowboys are used to breaking quarter horses, cutting horses, this that and the other, but not thoroughbreds. But the way they do it in an even, mild-manner way, and so quickly, that’s something we can learn from,” he says. “Bill’s clients are indicative that they trust him with the methods of his training. That’s the important thing.”
On a recent rainy day in Lexington, Witman sits atop his quarter horse, Risin’ Sun, watching as four cowboys ride laps inside a barn on the shed row – a track made of hard wood chips that ring the stalls inside the barn.
“You can look at their facial expression and you can tell how well they’re doing,” he says of the thoroughbreds trotting inside the barn, explaining that the horses’ ears are up and alert.
At about 2 ½ weeks into training, he is watching for stride, the horse’s attitude and their willingness to obey their rider.
As he speaks, a horse takes a couple of skittish hops to the side, its rider turning a circle to correct the course. “They’re just babies, you know,” Witman says, looking down from his perch.
Witman makes it a point each day to ride with the breakers, which on dryer days takes the crew to the lush, rolling pasture. It’s part of what designates Calumet Farm as his dream job. “I never go to work, I just get up and go to the barn,” he says with a wry smile.
Hours before full daylight, he works from his “devil-red” Chevy Silverado that matches Calumet’s racing silks. He drives between stables administering treatments, changing bandages and ensuring that everything at the farm is running smoothly.
He moves with a quiet and swift determination, leaving the truck running as he stops at each barn. The back seat in the four-door cab has been replaced with a chest of veterinary tools; medical sheers, forceps and needle holders rest inside the truck’s air conditioning vents while a large bottle of Aleve and a canister of shotgun shells are nestled into the center console. A fuzzy dog mat sits in the passenger seat where dog Shelby normally rides.
With an average of more than 200 horses on-site each day, Witman might not know the name of every thoroughbred at Calumet, but he closely monitors his “post-op” patients. He speaks reverently about the rehabilitation process, saying that bringing a horse back to full potential is one of the most rewarding things he’s experienced in life.
“The horse is the most noble beast God ever put on the face of this earth,” Witman says. “But with blooded horses, the more refinement we breed in, the more resistance we breed out.”
Witman is all business as he attends to the recovering horses. He trusts handlers to steady the animals while he works on hooves and shins. His barely-noticeable bedside manner is calm and empathetic. He massages injection sites and pats horses on their necks. He’s more engaged when he tours the grounds, stopping at one point to watch several yearlings race across the field.
“The yearlings spend the night outside in the pasture. I want them to spend as much time as they can just being horses,” he says, looking out the window of the truck. Watching the horses run is one of his favorite things to do.
Witman’s passion for his life’s work is nearly tangible; his eyes light up when he talks about the beauty of the animals, and he smiles boyishly when he talks about spending moments on the farm when everything is still. He reacts the same when talking about his alma mater.
“OSU has become a foundation in my life with education and relationships,” Witman says, leaning against a barn wall at Calumet. “It opened doors for me and brought me a lot of things in life. It showed me I can do those things I dreamed of. When you leave there, it goes with you.”
Growing up, Witman lived in Chicago, but fell in love with horses as a small boy. He knew he wanted to study agriculture, and made his decision to attend Oklahoma State as soon as he arrived in Stillwater. He says he never imagined he’d be able to achieve a job like managing Calumet Farm.
At OSU he forged lasting friendships, including with Ross McKnight, a fellow member of Phi Delta Theta. Witman says McKnight was the one who convinced him to pursue animal sciences in college and continues to be a confidant. Witman says he consulted McKnight before taking the job at Calumet.
A recent visit to campus has made OSU a focal point for Witman, reenergizing his love for the University.
“There’s a feeling of warmth and a genuine attitude at OSU,” Witman says. “The people are real and you get a sense that your word is important.”
Since that visit, he has been encouraging everyone he can to get to Oklahoma State.
“There are so many things that are different, but so many things are still the same. There’s still that underlying strength and character that says, ‘This is OSU. This is who we are,’” he says. “As alumni, we need to get back. I know what it’s done for me. You don’t ever forget where you came from.”
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