Beyond the White Fences: Inside Calumet

Calumet manager Bill Witman photo by: Emily Moseley.

Calumet remains the front porch of central Kentucky’s horse industry

Lexington, KY – For anyone who has ever visited Fayette County, one of the most recognizable and memorable sites has to be that of Calumet Farm. For those who live here, it is part of the community and the heritage that makes up Lexington and Fayette County.

Even in winter, it is an awe-inspiring site, with its white fences and red-trimmed barns crisscrossing and dotting 800 acres situated close enough to the city that the tall buildings of downtown can be seen from many parts of the farm. But it is a world all its own, a magical place, according to Bill Witman, Calumet manager. He speaks fervently about the farm and what it means to the community and beyond.

“This is an iconic property for a lot of reasons,” he said. “Historically nobody has achieved what Calumet has in the Thoroughbred industry. Geographically, we have an obligation to put out the welcome mat, welcoming people to Kentucky and the Bluegrass and to the Thoroughbred world, and we take it very seriously.”

Witman said when he first arrived at the farm, it was the fall and the famed white fences that line Versailles Road were beginning to peel. One of the first things he did was learn about paint — and then, of course, paint them.

“The day the paint started going on, the phone started ringing and people in this community called and thanked us for painting that fence,” he said.

Witman also related a story about cutting down dead trees the first winter after coming to the farm. One tree in particular caught the eye of a resident, who called and remarked that he had driven by that tree for 15 years and he loved that tree and loved the farm. Witman said those stories and many others like them demonstrate the love the community has for the farm.

“This farm belongs to a trust, but it belongs to the people of Lexington, to the people of Kentucky and the Thoroughbred industry,” he said. “We feel that responsibility, and we feel that sense of community, and we want to be here to try and fulfill that.”

The trust he spoke of was formed after the death in 2003 of Calumet owner Henryk de Kwiatkowski, who bought the farm in 1992 after it had fallen on hard times and was facing bankruptcy. Many, including Witman, credit de Kwiatkowski for saving the farm from possible real estate development.

“Very likely we would have been sitting in the clubhouse, and there would be 18 holes out there and a very upscale housing development around it,” Witman said, while sitting in his Calumet office.

He added that de Kwiatkowski was a hero in the community for saving Calumet from that development.

“Hopefully, nobody in the future would ever develop it. Hopefully, the city fathers would be forward-thinking enough to never allow the zoning to change,” Witman said.

The farm was established in 1924, first as a Standardbred farm then as a Thoroughbred farm, and flourished for decades. In the ’40s and ’50s, such horse legends as Tim Tam, Whirlaway and the great Citation excited the horse racing world. Later would come horses such as Forward Pass and Alydar. All told, Calumet can lay claim to eight Kentucky Derby winners that were bred, born and raised there (a ninth was born there, but sold as a yearling) and two Triple Crown winners, along with countless stakes winners.

Witman arrived more than seven years ago, not knowing de Kwiatkowski personally but knowing of his passion for the farm. He shares that same passion. He said that on his first day, he was absolutely overwhelmed with where he was. On the second day, he was overwhelmed with the daunting task he had before him, and on the third day, he said he fell in love with the farm.

“It’s absolutely a magical place,” Witman said. “What’s it like to be at Calumet? Well, it’s a little slice of heaven.”

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