When the Bluegrass goes West

Parlaying a $600 risk into a $4 million breeding bonanza, Rex Ellsworth may make California the Kentucky of tomorrow
July 27, 1958

Rex C. Ellsworth, the lean and leathery rancher pictured above, changed from his customary blue jeans to a conservative dark business suit and joined more than 52,000 other racing fans in the grandstand at Hollywood Park last Saturday afternoon. They were all there to watch the 18th running of the $100,000-added Westerner, the mile-and-a-quarter test for 3-year-olds which traditionally crowns the division's summer champion in the West. Ellsworth, sitting in a box alongside his close friend and trainer, Mish Tenney, was shooting for the purse with a chestnut colt by Khaled out of a mare named Iron Reward. The colt was named The Shoe as a tribute to Bill Shoemaker, Ellsworth's regular jockey, but other than that the horse's only serious claim to fame was that he is a full brother to Swaps, an earlier product of Ellsworth's ranch and undoubtedly the finest race horse ever bred in California.

As the race got under way, Ellsworth and Tenney watched through their binoculars, their faces expressionless. When the field rounded the turn for home, The Shoe, ridden by his namesake, found himself shut off by an undistinguished colt named Hillsdale, who went on to lose a close stretch duel to another comparatively obscure horse named Strong Bay. The winner had been claimed for a mere $12,500 at Santa Anita by Mr. and Mrs. Ray Camp, and six weeks ago he was hurting so much from bad shoulders, general rheumatism and bad ankles that few thought he would even be able to make the race. When The Shoe, who finished third, was moved up to second ahead of Hillsdale on a disqualification, Ellsworth and Tenney still showed no particular signs of pleasure, and quite rightly. Their leading 3-year-old for 1958 had looked anything but impressive against a very mediocre class of horses. Even allowing for the fact that the West's three ranking 3-year-olds—Gone Fishin', Old Pueblo and Silky Sullivan—were all sidelined with assorted ailments, this race underscored a depressing truth about California Thoroughbreds: they are currently a second-rate lot, despite the considerable efforts of Rex Ellsworth himself over the last half dozen years.

In California, where the citizens like to travel first class or not at all, the Thoroughbred racing circuit is a spectacle of wealth and glamour unequaled anywhere in the world. Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, the most spacious and sumptuous of all U.S. tracks, lead the entire racing world in purse distribution, and they have no peers in the art of racing showmanship—which, of course, includes the art of publicity. Nonetheless, the class of home-grown horseflesh which competes on California tracks has never been on a par with the surroundings.

Only rarely in recent years has California produced a Thoroughbred of truly national stature. Ellsworth's Swaps, who came East to win the 1955 Kentucky Derby and went on to share the championship honors of his generation with Nashua, was the last horse of any consequence to be raised in the state. All too frequently, as the publicity mills have ground out their propaganda during the winter months, the California-breds—Your Host and Correlation being two notable examples of fresh memory—have made disappointing showings in eastern competition.

No sooner had Swaps seemed to end this unhappy state of affairs than along came that lumbering heavyweight, Silky Sullivan. Colorful and handsome as he was, he did almost as much to downgrade California racing prestige as Swaps had done to build it up. "If Silky Sullivan is the best that California has," said one eastern critic after watching Silky shirk his chores in the Derby and Preakness, "then those guys out there had better fold their tents and give up."

The Californians, however, are not about to take this advice, and there is no better evidence than the current activities of Rex Ellsworth. The man who was responsible for Swaps is, at the age of 51, one of the most prolific breeders and buyers that racing has ever known. He is also a man of tremendous drive and considerable mystery, for despite his success as the West's No. 1 breeder, Ellsworth's Mormon training has led him to avoid publicity whenever possible. Hence he is often misunderstood, occasionally misquoted and nearly always held under some suspicion by those who cannot get close enough to him to find out what sort of man he really is. When I went out to his ranch in Chino last week, I remarked that some of his fellow Californians felt positive that within 10 years he would be the leading breeder in the world. Looking out over his flat pasture land, he paused for a moment to watch a brood mare get slowly to her feet out of a dusty bed she had made for herself. Then he replied with an exact matter-of-factness that is so typical of everything he does, "If I can have the same success with the brood mares I've bought during the last two years that I've had with my 15 or so other mares," he said, "there's no reason why I shouldn't be the most successful." The remark was not boastful; it was just the honest conviction of a man who has parlayed a $600 investment in 1934 into a Thoroughbred empire worth about $4 million today. And Ellsworth feels it will be worth many times that amount before he calls it quits.

PERIPATETIC HORSE TRADER

To achieve his lofty ambition, Ellsworth, who grew up on the ranges of his father's Arizona cattle ranches, has spent considerable time in the last few years dickering for bank loans in order to survive in the speculative world of horse racing. By no means a wealthy man, he must frequently arrange deals within deals to obtain the finest in horseflesh. For Ellsworth is a buyer. He has traveled to nearly every major Thoroughbred center on earth in search of the very best stock he can bring home to Chino. While leaving the training of the Ellsworth string entirely to his partner, Mish Tenney, who has kept their red-and-black silks consistently near the top of the national standings, Rex has become as familiar a figure at Newmarket and at the Irish and French studs as he is at the local California sales at Pomona and Del Mar. And when he goes to buy he buys. Two years ago he paid Aly Khan $600,000 for 41 brood mares, one of them in foal. Since then there have been other trips and further outlays of substantial money. The result is that today Ellsworth has roughly 110 mares at Chino, and the majority of them represent some of the finest classic bloodlines in Europe. Their offspring have in many instances already distinguished themselves on foreign turf. For example, one of Ellsworth's mares is Blina, the dam of this year's Grand Prix de Paris winner, San Roman. Blina's 1957 foal is a filly by Migoli, sire of Gallant Man, and she will race for Ellsworth as a 2-year-old next season. Another mare at Chino is Donya, a half sister to Gallant Man. Her present foal, a filly by Khaled, will first race in 1960. Then there is the brood mare Nikellora, dam of this year's Princess Elizabeth Stakes winner Princess Lora. Nikellora has a 1958 filly by Prince Chevalier, and is currently in foal to Khaled. One excellent example of the class of brood mare Ellsworth has on his ranch was Rose of Yeroda, dam of Rose Royale, the best filly in Europe in 1957. Before her recent death, Rose of Yeroda dropped a 1957 Tehran colt for Ellsworth to race a year from now.

Altogether there are 83 mares at Chino with either yearlings or sucklings or both, thus assuring Ellsworthy plenty of racing material for the next two years. He estimates that he has 80 mares in foal at the moment, meaning an almost unbelievably large crop of 2-year-olds for the 1961 season. But if Ellsworth is mindful of the importance of having first-class brood mares, he is just as keenly aware of the necessity of sending his mares to the best possible stallions. In this connection it may sound slightly incongruous that Rex disposed of Swaps after having maintained that this champion was the greatest horse he ever saw. "I sold him because I couldn't afford to keep him," he says. "By that I mean I wanted the money to be able to buy the kind of mares that Khaled deserved. Now you take some of the stallions in Kentucky, like Nasrullah. They have access to the best mares in America, but out here we had Khaled, who was getting a few good ones but not nearly enough. Yet when we saw that Khaled was always producing runners—and these colts and fillies of his have always seemed to be able to run at any age—I naturally felt he deserved the world's top mares. But to buy them I had to sell Swaps."

SIX SHARES OF YATASTO PREFERRED

Ellsworth had never disclosed the total value of the Swaps sale, but it is estimated to be about $2 million. With the money acquired from this deal and later ones, Ellsworth has also bought (for $180,000) the 14-year-old Argentine stallion Nigromante and, more recently, Toulouse Lautrec. In addition to Khaled he has the fast son of Khaled, El Drag, and he owns six shares in Yatasto, another Argentine which was imported to California to be syndicated in 26 shares at $10,000 a share. Even though he no longer owns him, Ellsworth still has a healthy interest in Swaps, now standing in Kentucky. This season he sent four mares to Swaps, six to Yatasto, 22 to Nigromante and more than 40 to Khaled. "I book Khaled to 40 markets," says Rex, "but we often get him a few others if we can work them in."

It is this sort of frank statement about his breeding operations (together with what once was a nearly nonexistent system of bookkeeping) that has prompted some of Ellsworth's critics to question his methods. And Ellsworth is aware of the criticism. "I'm a man used to being outdoors all my life," he says. "I never went into any office if I didn't have to. Even now, with all the book-work to be done, I can only stay behind that desk for about one hour before those big beads start arollin' down my face. But I do have a full-time bookkeeper now, and my wife Hola helps out a lot."

Aside from the expanding operations at his own 440-acre Chino ranch, Ellsworth is pretty optimistic about the future of California breeding in general. "We stood still for a long time," he observes, "but now we seem to be moving ahead. I think one of the reasons we'll keep moving ahead is that we are now keeping some of our good stallions out here." The California Thoroughbred Breeders Association lists about 300 stallions today; and, according to President Louis Rowan, there are, in addition to the syndicated Yatasto and the Ellsworth sires, such useful and potentially useful studs as Stymie, Any-oldtime, Cover Up, Imbros, Determine, Noor and Turk's Delight.

Although Ellsworth and some of his fellow Californians are at last building the foundations for a sound line of native Thoroughbreds, it will be some years before the Far West will seriously challenge Kentucky horses on the race tracks in any substantial numbers. Lou Rowan reminds us, "We are building up, but it takes plenty of time. Twenty years ago when we were producing a lot of foals but very few of any quality, there were probably only 10 first-class mares in the whole state. Even 10 years ago we had only 50 or so top mares. But today, with about 1,400 mares in the state, between 400 and 500 of them are good enough to produce good horses. What's more important to a lot of our breeders, an increasing number of better stallions are either being kept in California or are being imported to stand here."

When Ellsworth lets these statistics lead his thoughts into the future, a very happy gleam comes into his eye, and he begins woolgathering in Calumet-size terms. "We might," he says in his earnest way, "have three racing stables going before too long: our usual bunch at Caliente, a string to race in California which could then go on to Chicago, and a third outfit strictly for New York and the East Coast." There is no doubt in the mind of this ambitious horseman that California will by that time have homegrown Thoroughbreds worthy of its magnificent racing facilities.

PHOTOREX ELLSWORTH IS SILHOUETTED AGAINST PASTURES OF HIS CHINO RANCH. FACING CAMERA IS HIS $36,000 MARE NIKELLORA PHOTOLEADING SIRE of 2-year-old winners last year, Khaled is held by Rancher Ellsworth, who paid $160,000 for him. Investment was quickly returned by great runner Swaps.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)