Only three stables in the history of U.S. Thoroughbred racing have ever won a million dollars in one year. The owners of two of these celebrated outfits, Mrs. Gene Markey (Calumet Farm) and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, now have company in racing's most exclusive club. The new member, who joined last year, is a lean 6-foot-1, 55-year-old weather-beaten and deadly serious Arizona-born cowboy ("I am not an ex-cowboy; I am a cowboy") named Rex Cooper Ellsworth (see cover, and below with his son Kumen). And he is as different from his New York-Florida-Europe-oriented millionaire confreres as the California sand that smothers his 440-acre ranch in the Los Angeles suburb of Chino is from the bluegrass in the manicured pastures of the Calumet and Whitney farms in Lexington, Ky.
Rex Ellsworth is racing's most controversial personality. Last year 51 horses carrying his black-and-red silks won $1,154,454 by mid-September, when they stopped racing so that Rex and his trainer, Meshach Adams Tenney, could go home to run the roundups for 2½ months on Ellsworth's 1,000 square miles of rugged cattle country in Arizona and New Mexico. Two of Ellsworth's biggest horses last season were the handicap star Prove It, who won $348,750, and the Arlington-Washington Futurity winner Candy Spots ($158,312), the latter already a winter book choice for this spring's Kentucky Derby and a heavy favorite for next week's Santa Anita Derby. When it was suggested to Ellsworth in Chicago late last summer that a fall campaign in New York and New Jersey would bring him another few hundred thousand in purse winnings and some more honors for Prove It and Candy Spots, he replied with typical forthrightness, "What is the point of going east when I already feel that we have the best 2-year-old and the best older horse? I don't have to go to New York to prove that to myself. Besides, I look forward all year to roundup time. It's what Meshach and I want to do in September more than go to New York or anywhere else."
Ellsworth and Tenney so far haven't needed the prizes of New York's big apple. They have struck it rich in California. In 1939, six years after Rex and his brother Heber had spent $600 on some fillies and mares in Lexington, Ky., the Ellsworth name first appeared on racing's earnings list. The stable won $14,400. The total since then is just under $6 million, and in the last 10 years alone Rex has taken more than half of this amount—$3,745,897—out of purses at southern California's two great tracks, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Ellsworth figures he has parlayed his original $600 investment into Thoroughbred holdings worth $12,640,000. He is the world's largest nonmarket breeder and, with about 500 head at his disposal, he is unquestionably owner of the world's largest active racing stable.
Rex Ellsworth is never sure how many horses he has or where they all are on any given day. Recently, as he walked slowly around one of the 32 long, narrow pens where some mares and their foals were resting in the Chino dust, he totted up his stock: 200 mares (25 of which came from the Samuel D. Riddle estate and are owned in partnership with Mrs. Helen Alvarez Hill and C. Ray Robinson), some 35 older horses (including Prove It, Olden Times and such potential dams as Bushel-n-Peck and Wish n Wait), 90 to 95 3-year-olds (including Candy Spots, Space Skates, Three Links and dozens that haven't even started yet), 40 2-year-olds (survivors of the 1961 crop so hard hit by virus abortion that more than 40 foals were lost, including 23 sired by Ellsworth's star stallion Khaled and another seven or eight by Nigromante) and some 90 yearlings. Another 100 or so foals are due this spring and summer. Because each stable is allowed only 40 stalls at the southern California tracks, Trainer Tenney spends considerable time during each race meeting platooning his runners between Chino and the stable area.
February 25, 1963
To achieve such real and potential power, Ellsworth has lived for the last 30 years arm in arm with every friendly banker he could find. "It's tough to figure the total value of my holdings, because the banks are so involved in my operations," he admits candidly. "'I've got about 1,000 square miles, some of it in partnership with Meshach, some in partnership with Bill Shoemaker and some that I lease from the Government. But the banks own so much of it that I couldn't put a price on what I actually own myself. For example, I recently bought another ranch for $3 million, but only had to put $250,000 down." The 20,000 head of cattle on Rex's ranches today include Herefords, some Black Angus and a new breed he developed himself to which he jokingly refers as his Mortgage-lifter Breed. Halt Angus, quarter Holstein and quarter Brahma, they were bred for conditions on some parts of his property where the land is rough and the cattle are forced to go a long way for water.
Drawing from bank loans, purse earnings and cattle income, Ellsworth has spent about $3.5 million buying Thoroughbred stock to build his stable. Some $2.5 million of this went, at various times between 1946 and 1958, toward purchases from the vastly successful holdings of the late Aga and Aly Khan. Most of the rest was spent at dispersals held by Louis B. Mayer, Harry Warner and Sam Riddle. Ellsworth gives the major share of credit for his success to the acquisition of nearly 100 Aga Khan mares, representing the finest bloodlines in Europe. Ellsworth's own stallions and those in which he has shares are, with the exception of Swaps, hardly familiar to Americans, either. There is Khaled, of course, sire of Swaps and of 48 other U.S. stakes winners. Most of the other sires—who include Lychnus, Manantial, Toulouse Lautrec, Negotiation, Antonio Canale, Yatasto, The Shoe and Nigromante (who died last spring)—also are foreign-bred.
Come roundup time next September, Ellsworth and Tenney may be back on the ranch, but long before that they will have launched a powerful, carefully plotted assault on U.S. racing. This is the year that Ellsworth plans to establish himself beyond doubt—in the public mind and on the money-earned list—as the No. 1 owner-breeder in the nation. This is the year the man from the West plans to take over.
Ellsworth's second front may be established on a beachhead at Florida's Gulfstream Park if Candy Spots comes east for the March 30 Florida Derby. Later he and the most promising of Rex's other runners will likely run in New York. The main California string, as usual, will ship to Chicago, and a third group is at Caliente. "Some think I have a grudge against eastern racing," he said recently, "but it's not true. On the contrary, I feel there's more opportunity in the East because there's more racing. I haven't wanted to race in New York until I was ready. I wanted to have the best possible representation."
If the Ellsworth-Tenney plans are clear and their motives avowed, the two men nevertheless remain a puzzlement to fellow horsemen as well as the racing public. Perhaps the chief cause is their unorthodox handling of their stock. Some horsemen say they are lunatics who believe that a stout two-by-four is a basic part of a trainer's equipment. Others claim they are touched with genius. "Mesh Tenney can make a horse stand on its head if he wants to—he's that good," says Trainer Charlie Whittingham. "He's the best horseman in the country," says Jockey Shoemaker, "and his horses are the best schooled I know. I've been on hundreds of his horses, good ones and bad ones, and not one of them was ever a bad gate horse."
"I don't think people begrudge them their success," says another California owner. "I think they are respected for their knowledge and ability. My only knock against them is the way they treat horses." A prominent Easterner goes further: "There's nothing I admire about Rex Ellsworth, and his handling of horses disgusts me." Says Owner-Breeder Neil McCarthy, "Sure, they discipline horses severely. They run their ranch like a cattle ranch, because that's the cattleman's way of doing things."
Neither Ellsworth nor Tenney feels there is any need to defend himself against accusations of cruelty, brutality or unethical practices. For the record, however, both want to. "The real trouble," says Rex, "is that 95% of the people fooling with horses don't understand them. It isn't their fault; they just haven't had the experience." Both men believe that all any horse needs is plenty of good feed and somebody to teach him what to do. Some outraged fellow horsemen feel that Ellsworth and Tenney confuse the noble Thoroughbred with the wild cow pony who, when first disciplined at the age of 6 or 7, puts up a stubborn fight. "Cowboys," says Ellsworth, "actually feel that their horses are their most treasured possessions. They aren't unnecessarily rough with them, but their ways of taming and gentling a horse have to be tough. We break 150 horses a year ourselves at Chino, and 50 of them we teach to handle so that they'll practically talk to you. Our methods may sound unorthodox, but they make sense to us. We break our horses to hand by riding alongside of them and taking their reins in our own hands. I think it's easier than other ways because they can't run off and crack into a fence or something. Sure, we cuff them about the ears a bit to teach them to dodge left and right. We think it teaches rein response a hundred times faster than having some exercise boy pulling and gouging on their mouths all the time."
While Tenney was saddling a young horse in the Santa Anita paddock, Ellsworth continued: "See how our boys hold a horse in the paddock by a long shank? They'll yank on it once in a while to keep his head down, but isn't that much better than the way most trainers have a boy wrestling with a horse's head and holding him close with a lip chain? That only hurts him and makes him nervous."
When the Tenney-trained colt had left the walking ring quietly, Mesh said, "We know our methods aren't the ones used everyplace, but we also know that a cuff or a rap on a horse's ear or flank is not a brutal beating. Our horses, you will notice, don't twist around and cross their legs, and there's no more logical way to teach them than to hit them over the ears."
Once the Ellsworth stock has been broken at the Chino ranch it is turned over to Mesh for training and racing, and Rex himself never interferes. A few days ago Tenney sat in his Santa Anita tack-room office facing the walking ring between his two 20-stall barns, barking occasional orders to his stablehands through a loudspeaker and discussing horsemanship. "Rex and I don't think we are the smartest guys in the world. But when it comes to horses we think we must know something. We've lived with them all our lives and literally fought for our own lives against some of them on the range. There's a misunderstanding, I think, in a lot of people's minds about the terms 'trainer' and 'horseman' And what a real difference there is! Why, training horses is a joke compared to being a horseman. The term 'horseman' means a man who is able to get that use out of a horse that he was made for, whether it be to race, to pull a wagon or to head a cow. A trainer has the job of getting a horse fit to race—how far to work him and how fast. Any trainer, for example, should find it easier to tell whether a horse is too fat or too thin than to tell why a horse is bearing out or lugging in. That takes a horseman to analyze and to correct."
Tenney raised the brim of his cowboy hat and dragged one spur slowly across the tack-room floor. "Our training methods aren't so unorthodox. For one thing, I don't like to work a horse hard or long, and I never work him farther than a mile. A horse runs his distance on his conformation and his breeding, and no conditioning helps a horse beyond a mile. I really believe that if you get a horse dead-fit to run three-quarters of a mile he'll go as far as he can. Without working them beyond a mile I won the mile-and-six-furlong San Juan Capistrano with Olden Times and the mile-and-five-eighths Sunset with both Swaps and Prove It."
Because of these western methods of raising and handling horses Ellsworth has been accused of having no feeling for his animals. This criticism reached a peak a few years ago when Swaps suffered a leg injury that ultimately led to his retirement. For a while he was close to death as he languished in an awkward sling at New Jersey's Garden State Park track. Some horsemen felt Ellsworth should have been sitting in that stall with Swaps instead of running his business in Chino. And then Ellsworth was quoted in a magazine story as saying that horses are plain stupid. A few weeks ago, as he tooled his blue Cadillac skillfully along the San Bernardino Freeway from the ranch to Santa Anita, he commented on this: "I don't think I ever called a horse stupid. What I have always known is that a horse hasn't the power to think, as some people believe. A horse doesn't learn by thinking or figuring things out. He learns things by repetition. Do you know that a mare finds her foal by smelling it, not by sight? It isn't that she has bad eyes; it's just that smell is more natural to her than thinking or reasoning. People say horses can recognize you. They can't. A dog can. What a horse recognizes is each person's individual way of doing things—such as walking up to him. I can prove it. We had this cowboy on roundup in Arizona, and he had a pony he'd ridden a long time. He had walked up to him maybe a couple of thousand times. One day the man got down to help a cow out of a ditch and the cow struck out at him and drove a horn into his foot. When that cowboy hobbled back to his horse with his different way of walking, that horse didn't know him and tried to savage him on the spot. You take a horse that gets in trouble in barbed wire. He'll kill himself trying to get out. But take a silly old mule that everyone thinks is so stupid. He'll stand a week in wire or in anything else, waiting for help."
When Ellsworth reached his box at the track he sat down quickly in his customary left-front-row seat and put his glasses on a field parading to the post in front of him. Then he turned: "They talk about fondness and affection! Well, sure, I was criticized by some people for selling Swaps out of the state and all that. They said it was lack of affection for a horse that had won me all that money. They just don't know. I sold Swaps for $2 million to Mr. [John W.] Gal breath because it was a case of necessity for me. I couldn't afford to keep him. But fondness is not the right word anyway. I had no more fondness for Swaps over the rest of my horses than I have fondness for one of my five children over the other four."
Rex Ellsworth was himself one of nine children, born on his family's cotton and alfalfa farm in Safford, Ariz. His great-grandfather was the first of the clan to move west—he arrived in Utah from Vermont in 1850—and the first to join the Mormon church. Ellsworth's father moved to Safford in 1872 when, says Rex, "it was wild and rugged Indian territory. It was also the days of Geronimo. Oldtimers used to tell me that Geronimo killed every white man he met until he met up with my dad. Geronimo rode up to Dad one day when Dad was feeding his team. Dad was scared to death, and the only thing he could think of was to offer Geronimo feed for his horse and for himself. Geronimo accepted and then went on peaceably. Dad figured later that Geronimo just admired a man in the act of feeding horses.
"We had good schooling then," Rex recalls, "but I could never concentrate in class. My mind was always on the family's ranch about 18 miles from town. I rode out and back on weekends and vacations beginning when I was about 6. I knew then I loved horses and ranching more than anything."
When he was only 8 Rex found a perfect ally in a boy named Meshach Tenney, who joined his class when Mrs. Tenney moved up to Safford from Old Mexico to work for the Ellsworths. The two Mormon youths became close friends. They played together, rode together and thought alike. "Rex was one day older than I was," Tenney says today, "and he's never let me forget it."
After high school the boys moved out to the ranch to work, and by the time Rex was 19 he was his dad's foreman at $50 a month. Mesh Tenney got $40 as next in command. Rex married Nola Zobedia Ferrin early in 1927, and a few months later he was summoned by his church to go on the traditional Mormon mission. When Tenney got his call it was to go to nearby Colorado. Rex, however, found himself off on a three-year stint as a gospel preacher in Capetown, Durban and Johannesburg, South Africa. "It's something most young men are called upon to do, and they do it willingly," says Ellsworth. "It's one of our obligations as Mormons, like paying 10% of our earnings to the church." Today Rex still pays his 10% to the church and also contributes to the mission costs of several young Mormons who cannot afford their own expenses.
Nola Ellsworth recalls the days when her husband was dreaming of owning Thoroughbreds: "One day Rex came to me and said, 'If I can ever save up $1,000 that I don't really need I'm going to give you $500 to buy what you want, and I'm going to take my $500 and go to Kentucky and buy some Thoroughbreds.' Well, you know what happened, don't you? I'm still waiting for my $500."
What happened, of course, was that when the kitty got to $600 Rex couldn't wait any longer. "My brother Heber and I took the $600 and a rented truck and set off for Lexington," he says. "Between us we had a great big old suitcase, but somewhere along the way it slipped off the top of the truck. When we reached Kentucky all we had was the $600 and the clothes we had on. The hotel made us pay in advance and then put us in a room with no hot water. We had a cold bath and ran down to the nearest store to buy some clothes. Heber bought a jacket that was too small for him, and they all called him Frigidaire because he looked so cold."
On that memorable first buying trip Rex and Heber bought eight fillies and mares, all on the basis of conformation. "That's the only way I've ever been able to afford to buy anyway," he says. "On the way home the horses tore off the roof of the truck and began eating it. We had practically nothing in our pockets when we finally got home to Safford."
That was 1933, and Rex Ellsworth was in the Thoroughbred horse business. He spent $1,250 for his first stallion, Silver Cord, and he joined other ambitious horsemen who in those days were sending their best mares to be bred to the stallions of California's premier racing figure, Louis B. Mayer. When the war brought a ban on California racing, most of these same horsemen took their mares home, refusing to spend stud fees if there was no benefit to be gained on the track. As van after van pulled into his ranch to take home his friends' horses, Mayer ordered an aide to "call up that Arizona cowboy and tell him to come get his broodmares." Ellsworth's reply surprised Mayer: "The war won't go on forever. My mares will stay at your place. Breed 'em."
Ellsworth had decided that what he needed was a top stallion and that the place to get one was Europe. As soon as the war was over he was ready to go—except for a small matter of money. First stop was a Denver bank. "We'd go to the bank once a year," he says, "usually early, to set up the finances for our cattle deals. This time, in 1946, I walked in to see the president of the bank and he said, 'But Rex, you were just here a month ago, and we straightened out your cattle loans for the year.'
" 'Yes, I know,' I said, 'but now I want some more money to buy a horse.'
" 'How much do you want?'
" 'One hundred thousand dollars,' I said, and he almost dropped dead. Then he gave it to me."
On that 1946 trip, first of many for Ellsworth, he took his brother Heber, and Joe Estes of The Blood-Horse as adviser. "When we got there they thought I was interested in a $30,000 stud," Rex recalls. "Actually I was interested in buying Nasrullah, but they told me he wasn't for sale, so I forgot about him. If I knew then what I know now I would have gotten him. We went all over looking at stallions and then went to Paris, where I was introduced to Aly Khan at the races. He asked me to visit him in Ireland and look at his stallion, Khaled. By now I had pretty much decided that I better buy either Gulf Stream or Khaled, both sons of Hyperion and both among the top five on the Free Handicap list. But I had to see Khaled first, so I went to Ireland.
"When I looked at him in his stall Khaled looked great. Clean as a pin, I thought, and yet I couldn't understand why he hadn't run better over a distance of ground. I said to Aly, 'Can I look at him out of his stall, in his paddock?
"Aly replied, 'But we only take him out of his stall for exercise.'
" 'Then open the door,' I said. 'It's time for him to get some exercise. I can't think about buying a horse without seeing him gallop.' Aly opened the door and Khaled hadn't gone two steps before I knew what was the matter. Knew it—shucks, I could hear it!
" "He's a little rough in the wind, isn't he?' I asked. Aly laughed when he realized that I knew immediately what had stopped this horse. But it didn't bother me. I bought him anyway on his conformation and on his bloodlines. The price was $160,000, and I had to come home and borrow the rest of the money."
Out of this preliminary transaction between Ellsworth and Aly Khan came a firm and loyal friendship between two men of almost completely different tastes and habits. Rex was never a nightclubber, and Aly was hardly a rancher. But Aly looked forward to his visits to Ellsworth's ranch, where the two spent hours exploring each other's knowledge of Thoroughbreds. Now, says Rex, "the foundation of my current stud is the inheritance of the Aga and Aly Khan lines." Ellsworth's breeding plans are largely built around the stallion Toulouse Lautrec, because he is free of Hyperion blood. He won Italian classics, and one of Rex's goals is to get a cross between the Hyperion blood, which he now has in great quantity, and the Nearco blood, which Toulouse Lautrec represents.
Ellsworth's life today is a hectic mixture of running the ranch at Chino, supervising the widespread operations in Arizona and trying to stick as close to his family and to his California-based racehorses as possible. At Chino, where only about 45 men keep things going, Rex lives in a typical ranch house, where the only luxuries he allows himself are a swimming pool for his children and grandchildren and a paneled office for himself. Nearly everyone on the payroll at Chino seems to be in the family as well. Ellsworth's oldest son, Kumen, 29, is the ranch's chief resident veterinarian. Daughter Karen, 26, is married to Chemical Engineer Robert Craft, who works on the Ellsworth breeding and training program. Another daughter, Karmen, 24, is married to the ranch business manager, Dean Roberts. Son Kimberly, 19, still in college, is interested in working for his father eventually, but right now seems more concerned with the possible purchase of a prizefighter's contract, "if and when he wins a Golden Gloves championship." The last son, Kerry, 16, still in school, is allergic to animals—quite a switch for an Ellsworth—and wants to be a lawyer. All of the Ellsworth children's names begin with K because "after the first K it sounded nice." Brother Heber is handling a string of Ellsworth horses at Caliente, while brother Evan is helping in the development of a new Ellsworth-invented saddle, the first radical departure in western saddle design in 200 years.
Ellsworth himself should be one of the chief beneficiaries of his design. He may spend more time in the saddle, even these days, than he does in chairs. Despite the campaigns at Aqueduct and Belmont, in Chicago, Los Angeles and Louisville, he and Mesh Tenney will find the excuses to slip away to the cow country. "I enjoy racing," he says, "but I'll always miss range life. A day spent riding the range is a day you hate to see end. Time stops when you get on a horse, and starts again when you get off."